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Earthquake simulator shakes Alaskan complacency

Posted: August 19, 2013 - 12:01am
From left: Jackson Parrish, Jon Parrish and Rosie Chanar go for a ride in the Quake House earthquake simulator. The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management demonstrated the new simulator on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. Attendees at the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Energy Services Safety Day, in Anchorage, AK, got a chance to experience what an earthquake feels like. (AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, Bob Hallinen)  Bob Hallinen
Bob Hallinen
From left: Jackson Parrish, Jon Parrish and Rosie Chanar go for a ride in the Quake House earthquake simulator. The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management demonstrated the new simulator on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. Attendees at the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Energy Services Safety Day, in Anchorage, AK, got a chance to experience what an earthquake feels like. (AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, Bob Hallinen)

ANCHORAGE — An 8.0 magnitude earthquake sounds like a freight train and feels like the worst-ever air turbulence. Bookshelves tumble. Computers and television sets crash to the floor. It’s a struggle to stay upright.

Even a fake one is scary.

A mechanical “Quake Cottage” that simulates a shallow-fault earthquake made its Alaska debut Aug. 8 at a bustling outdoor Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Energy Services safety fair. The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management bought the simulator for $150,000 to jolt quake-complacent Alaskans into getting ready for a major shaker.

It worked.

Joy Nalikak shrieked through her 45-second ride in the simulator.

“I’ve only lived here 20 years but I’ve thankfully never experienced anything like that,” said Nalikak, an Anchorage resident who moved to town from Barrow. “It makes me want to go home and get all my heavy stuff off the top shelf and make sure my water heater’s strapped down.”

People queued up in a small line and eyed the trailer-sized blue simulator as it gyrated and roared between the hula dance exhibition and a fire engine open for tours. Groups of four entered the simulator, sat down in black leather seats, grabbed a handle at their sides and held on.

State emergency manager Tony Luiken gave the earthquake-readiness rap. Secure heavy furniture and other items, especially near sleeping areas. Prepare a safety kit with provisions to last four or five days. Include essentials like non-perishable food items and water, but also toys, rubber gloves, extra clothes, knives, baby wipes and duct tape.

Then things started moving.

At a 5.0-magnitude, the fake quake felt manageable, like a bumper car ride. But then Luiken briefly cranked up to an 8.0. Grips tightened and smiles gave way to grimaces as people tried to stay in their seats. A printer bolted onto a counter bounced in its moorings. A small stuffed dog left untethered to make a point bounced to the floor and jittered there.

Ride over.

“We’ve felt smaller ones, like up to 4.0. They get you going,” said Ellen Frantz, emerging with her daughter, an ASRC employee. “I’m going to start strapping down some heavy stuff.”

Alaska’s Quake Cottage is one of just four in the country, according to ETC Building and Design, the San Diego company that makes the simulator. Two are in California and one in Indiana. Japan has two more.

The simulator serves as a physical reminder of a natural disaster that many Alaskans tend to ignore, said Bridget Bushue, an emergency management specialist with the state. People need to know how to make their homes as safe as possible and be prepared for the days after.

“We’re going to have another quake,” Bushue said. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’”

Alaska is by far the most seismically active state in the nation, according to the Alaska Earthquake Information Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The most recent major quake was in 2002. The 7.9-magnitude Denali Fault earthquake shook the Interior like a rug getting cleaned, shredding glaciers, splitting highways and slopping whole lakes from their beds.

An average of 50 to 100 earthquakes happen here every day. Another 400 to 700 occur weekly. Three of the 10 largest quakes ever recorded in the world happened in Alaska, according to the UAF earthquake center.

At magnitude 9.2, the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 remains the largest ever recorded in Alaska and the second largest in the world.

It killed 128 people — most in a quake-triggered tsunami — and wrought $311 million worth of property damage at a time when Southcentral Alaska was far less developed than today.

The state’s Quake Cottage will be at the Alaska State Fair, as well as events in Homer and Fairbanks. It will not be open to the public on a regular basis. The state plans to store it for the winter at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Somebody from Unalaska spotted the simulator when it arrived on a barge at the Port of Anchorage two weeks ago, Bushue said. Now Unalaska wants the Quake Cottage to pay them a visit too.

“We’re going to try and reach as many people as we can,” she said.

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