In wake of Anchorage quake, teachers thankful for regular disaster drills

The hallway outside Rebecca Vano’s classroom at Bartlett HIgh School. Ceiling tiles had fallen throughout the school. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Vano)

The Anchorage School District says “many, if not all” schools sustained damage in the earthquake. Right now, all district facilities are closed through Tuesday, and it’s unknown when classes will start back up, and when students and staff will be able to gather the belongings they left behind.

Rebecca Vano and Alysyn Thibault are English teachers at Bartlett High School. When yesterday’s quake hit, they were in a passing period, and students were transitioning between classes.

“So many of our students were still in the hall,” Vano said. “Random students came running in and that was the initial how things started out.”

Students began feeding into classrooms, even if their next class wasn’t there. Thibault says they began following the steps from the duck-and-cover earthquake drills the school regularly has.

“We grabbed hands and we ran inside to my classroom and told everyone to get under the tables and stay there,” Thibault said. “A bunch of kids came running in as well, and we all were saying, ‘We’ve got room. We’ve got room. Get under tables.'”

Both Vano and Thibault say they were surprised at how effective the whole process was. Vano says it was the first time she remembers needing to follow the earthquake protocol.

“It’s interesting because for years, I’ve done these drills and they get in the way of class time, you get tired of them,” Vano said. “But I am so grateful it’s so drilled because it was really apparent that the kids all knew what to do.”

Rebecca Vano’s classroom also had ceiling tiles fall. Her students stayed under their tables as part of their disaster preparedness training. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Vano)

Once the earthquake stopped, students and staff were told via intercom to evacuate outside. A lot of belongings were left behind. Vano and Thibault said everyone had to share whatever they had grabbed when they left the classrooms.

“The kids were even offering us stuff. I had a kid who, when her dad came, dropped off her mittens with me so that my hands could stay warm. That was pretty cool,” Vano said.

“I gave all my kids my coats, so eventually, I’ll end up getting them back when we go back to school,” Thibault said. “It was really interesting to see that people were sharing as much as they possibly could. Who knows who has my stuff, but we’ll find it eventually.”

The district sent a message asking parents to pick up their children when it was safe for them to do so. However, with heavy traffic, Thibault says that students and staff were waiting outside in the cold for a couple of hours. Vano says that the veterans hospital near the school began allowing students to come inside when they deemed their facility was safe.

The teachers say they were given a very brief opportunity to go into the building to grab anything deemed essential like a phone or car keys, but students weren’t.

The district announced earlier today that only repair and recovery teams are currently allowed back into the buildings as the district assesses the damage that the schools took yesterday.

The University of Alaska Anchorage also suffered damage to their campus. In a video, UAA chancellor Cathy Sandeen announced that the campus will be closed through Tuesday as maintenance staff make repairs.