By Lois Simenson
In early November, I returned from a two-week tour of Spain, France, and Portugal, with Trafalgar Tours, called “Days of Devotion.”
My cousins had invited me to join them on a tour of Barcelona, the French medieval-walled city of Carcassonne and the Grotto in Lourdes, France. We followed the 9th century Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) through Burgos, ending at Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre in Spain. I met and talked with people from all over the world making religious pilgrimages to these sites, asking them why they did so. While everyone had different reasons, what struck me was their passion for their faith. I was amazed by it.
Flash forward to the aftermath of November 30th, back home in Alaska, where I learned different aspects of faith:
Faith in Ourselves.
I hadn’t thought much about this until the earthquake happened. I thought back to the many reminders on TV, radio, newsprint, and social media in years past when our emergency preparedness folks cautioned us to prepare in the event of an emergency. Just a month and a half before the 2018 quake, KTUU Channel 2 News aired a series, “Are You Prepared?” the week of October 15-19. When we hear the “must prepare” mantra year after year, it can’t help but lodge inside of our brains. Whether we took the time to prepare or not, we found faith in ourselves and abilities to act during, and after the quake, confidence in ourselves we hadn’t realized was there. We’ve reviewed what went right, what didn’t, and the lessons learned.
Standing in our cul-de-sac that morning with other bewildered neighbors, we hugged and comforted each other. No one wanted to go back inside homes with the strong aftershocks. We felt safer in our jumping cars amid swaying spruce, with motors and heaters running. “Back the car up, I don’t want windows crashing on my car,” my daughter said, as we watched our bay windows heave in and out like a poltergeist had hold of our house.
We need to give ourselves credit for what we did right during and after the quake.
Faith in Each Other.
I knew we Alaskans have close connections, but after experiencing just how close for real was a humbling experience. Neighbors walked around asking if anyone was injured. Did we smell gas? Any broken water lines? Several came to our idling car, asking whether we needed help. Armed with wrenches, they helped homeowners turn off natural gas. By this time my oldest daughter was on the phone with my husband in Arizona, who walked her through turning off the water leaking in the garage.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be okay. You’re safe. You’ll be fine.” We walked around reassuring one other. I hugged strangers and strangers hugged me. Everyone was relieved to have emerged alive and unhurt.
It’s weird what one remembers when adrenaline pulsates — usually little things. On one of our fast forays into the house between aftershocks, our landline phones rang, muffled under debris. Then sounds of non-stop sirens and people hollering, “Look for gas leaks!” Scary moments, for sure.
We had funny moments too. One of us inadvertently stepped on a Steve Irwin doll in our haste to exit. “What a ripper!” exclaimed the recorded Australian twang.
“No kidding, Steve!” yelled my daughter, scurrying down the shaking stairs and out the door. Staying outside with other people just felt better.
The morning after the quake, a woman in a blonde ponytail at Eagle River WalMart told us once they heard Carrs suffered extensive damage. The WalMart staff worked all night through scary aftershocks to obtain approval from inspectors to open so people could get food. Meat, veggie and dairy shelves were empty. “No worries, the Port of Anchorage wasn’t damaged, so our container ships will dock and unload tomorrow. We’ll have milk, eggs, and bacon,” she said.
The stories began pouring out from all over Southcentral Alaska: Day-care providers, teachers, nurses, doctors shielding children and patients to protect them until the shaking stopped. Bosses protected their employees, as a dentist did in Eagle River, gathering them to a safe spot.
Countless people volunteered to sort through and clean up other Eagle River businesses. No one had superhero status.
Picture This in Eagle River had volunteers show up to help clear debris that had never been to their store. “They just showed up to help us,” said the owner, Michelle Haynes. “Clean-up was faster because they weren’t emotionally attached as we were, so was easier for them to toss damaged merchandise.” She talked about the selflessness of Alaskans in pitching in to help.
In the following days, I was blown away by the Lower 48s encouragement and support, and the support of fellow Alaskans, around the state on social media. It is apparent to me that our faith in one another has been strengthened.
Faith in Alaskan Leadership.
Right away our state and municipal leaders mobilized the Emergency Operations Center in Anchorage. Years of conducting inter-agency preparation drills paid off in a super-organized manner. Many professionals began inspecting and assessing damage to structures, roads, and bridges. Their speed in completing these tasks was phenomenal. The Alaska Department of Transportation was a superstar with how fast the got to road repairs. Gas and electric utilities, cell phone companies, fire departments, law enforcement, elected leadership, state and municipal employees, teachers, medical staff, day-care providers, company employees—people who couldn’t be with their families or check their own homes because they were helping the rest of us were selfless in their dedication to their jobs. The speed at which these people restored our electric, gas, and water systems was mind-blowing.
As Alaskans, we’re taught to rely on ourselves, due to our geographic isolation. We know we have quakes, volcanoes, intense storms and other things that can bring us to our knees. But when we’re on our knees, we can count on each other for a hand up.
For years I’d watched news stories of individual testimonials after wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters across America, as people in affected communities rallied to help each other. After the quake, we calmed each other’s frayed nerves, made each other laugh and supported one another move forward. That which did not kill us made us stronger.