An aerial view of Minnesota Drive after the 7.1 earthquake caused major road damage. The Alaska Department of
Transportation & Public Facilities repaired the roadway within four days. Photo by Ryan Marlow of Alaska Aerial Media
By Samantha Davenport
While many Alaskans were checking in with friends and family following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on Nov. 30, the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) and other state agencies were already hard at work making sure that structures and roads were safe and updating the public with critical information.
According to a DOT&PF communications review, about 4.4 million people were reached through the agency’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter social media outlets between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12.
Shannon McCarthy, administrative operations manager for DOT&PF, said technology and social media helped her team effectively communicate with the public while also dispelling rumors. In the 10 days following the earthquake, DOT&PF received over 14,000 messages on its social media platforms.
“The phone lines got overwhelmed really quickly, but text messages were great,” McCarthy said. “That’s why in some ways social was good because I could type up a quick update and post it and it would go live compared to problems we were having with the phone lines.”
At 8:44 a.m., just 15 minutes after the initial quake, DOT&PF published a #alaskaearthquake post to its Facebook page. By 11:08 a.m., the department had a special website — http://dot.alaska.gov/earthquake2018 — up and running. McCarthy said that by 11:34 a.m., DOT&PF had its first electronic situation report out.
“(Social media) was very helpful. In addition to the quick status reports, we were pushing people to the earthquake website to sign up for updates,” McCarthy said.
Meadow Bailey, communications director at DOT&PF, said that in the weeks following the earthquake, approximately 118,000 people visited the department’s official earthquake update page.
“By using social media, we can share information as soon as it is verified and we can provide frequent updates, with photos or graphics,” Bailey said in an email. “We also use social media as a listening tool, to alert us to misconceptions or questions the public may have; we then work to correct that misconception or answer the question.”
Two sinkholes near Mirror Lake affected traffic following the Nov. 30 earthquake. Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities
DOT&PF was dealing with major damage to priority roads, such as rock fall near Potter Marsh and undulating pavement on the New Seward Highway. In addition, DOT&PF was facing multiple problems on the Glenn Highway and in Palmer. McCarthy said the department had first responders reporting on what they were seeing in real time, and her team was able to start using pins on a map to highlight problem areas.
“The bulk of repair work, really, we accomplished within the first four days — maybe five days,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, during that time we were restoring essential traffic. Since that time, we’ve really been cataloging all the different damages, some of it is small, some of it we’re keeping an
McCarthy said that the department has begun developing plans for long-term repairs. Because the earthquake happened during the winter, DOT&PF will have to wait until spring to better understand the extent of the damage. Sean Baski, DOT&PF’s design project manager, said the department is already getting contracts ready for when the ground thaws.
“All the repairs and construction that people saw should be considered a temporary solution until we can move in with permanent fixes in the next coming years,” Baski said in an email. “Yes, it will take years to catalog, investigate, design,
then bid and construct all the permanent repairs to the system. We have hundreds of sites that we are currently tracking, and it will take an immense effort to work through all of them.”
Baski said that after the earthquake he received a message requesting assistance from his team to go to the emergency operations center. At the time, he was at home checking on his family. He said that was how his 85-hour work week started.
“That story is not unaccompanied,” Baski said. “Hundreds and likely thousands of others have similar ones. We had construction contractors, maintenance crews and others working in shifts 24 hours a day, away from their homes, families, and all the tasks and repairs that they had sitting at home to care for, all to serve their community.”
Baski added that the community effort proved that Alaskans can overcome tough situations.
“We were lucky in many ways, from it not being a larger event to having a communication backbone that still worked to having lower volumes of traffic on the road (because it was winter and much of the work happened over the weekend) and still having major utility and infrastructure outages being limited,” Baski said. “We made some of our own luck as well, but the one constant we had was our community came together to overcome a common challenge and did so in spectacular fashion.”
A Department of Transportation & Public Facilities employee inspects a bridge after the 7.1 earthquake that rattled Southcentral Alaska on
Nov. 30. Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities
While social media was effective in communicating to Alaskan residents following the Nov. 30 earthquake, DOT&PF’s Shannon McCarthy said that the department worked alongside other local public agencies, including the Anchorage Police Department.
Typically, DOT&PF uses 511, a mobile app that provides up-to-date information to the public about severe traffic or weather. Following the earthquake, DOT&PF allowed APD to provide Nixle reports without them. McCarthy said it was because both agencies didn’t want to spam the public with the same information.
DOT&PF regularly provides updates on the app, which is a useful tool for contractors who are often on the road. Nixle alerts allow users to be updated about public safety incidents and receive information directly from the Anchorage Police Department. Subscribe to Nixle by visiting https://local.nixle.com/register/. Registered users can choose text, email and web updates, or all of the above, and settings can be adjusted at any time.
Samantha Davenport is a freelance writer living in Anchorage.