Debt, anxiety, confusion: a year later, some earthquake victims still recovering

Damage at Houston Middle School after the November 30th earthquake. (Photo via Tim Leach)

It’s been a year since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook Southcentral Alaska, destroying roads, damaging homes and public buildings. But you wouldn’t know that looking around the cluttered first floor of Leslie Dickson’s west Anchorage home.

“These are just tools and Costco food,” Dickson said of a large pile. “Water, whatever you normally put in your garage. Propane tank.”

Dickson recently had to move the entire contents of her garage here so that workers could tear out the cracked cement floor. With just a few hours notice, she had shuffled all her camping gear, shelving, the washer, dryer, mini-fridge out into her living room and kitchen.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake there was a measure of relief that such a powerful event didn’t result in any deaths. But a year later, while many Anchorage has patched its cracks and moved on, some residents are still sorting through the quake’s consequences.

Leslie Dickson sits in her kitchen next to a pile of supplies she had to move out of her garage on short notice to accommodate repairs scheduled last minute (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

In spite of the on-going repairs and inconveniences, Dickson said this situation beats staying in a hotel, which she had to do for weeks after her duplex was massively damaged by last year’s quake.

“It just seemed like the house was falling apart. And then for every aftershock the house would move,” she said. “I was on the couch with my tennis shoes on, sleeping with a flashlight.”

The earthquake took a big toll on Dickson and her neighbors, who’s slice of west Anchorage was one of the areas most affected. Several of the homes bump up against a section of marshy wetland, and experienced ground failure. There are still houses with outward signs of damage.

Plenty of people in Anchorage came out of the earthquake with relatively little property loss: Broken plates, cracked drywall, shattered pictures, and possessions that could ultimately be replaced. But as of this week, 4,339 Alaskans had damage bad enough that they were approved approved for federal aid under the Individual Assistance program. A portion of them are people like Dickson, who have spent the last year coping with extreme damage, taking drastic financial measures to keep their homes.

“It’s been a terrible year,” Dickson said. “I’d heard about anxiety, I’m not sure I’d ever experienced it before this year.”

The damage was so bad, and the cost to repair so high, that she did the same math a lot of residents in a similar position were doing after the quake.

“I looked at every option, just to see if I should foreclose, walk away, what’s the cost of demolition,” Dickson said. “At the end of the day, it was the best option was just to fix it.”

Dickson owns both units of a duplex, living on one side, and renting out the other. The whole structure had to be lifted, at a cost of around $100,000. To pay for that work, she navigated a patchwork of different federal and local assistance programs, including an IRS exemption, a property tax re-assessment, federal disaster loans, and FEMA aid. By her estimate, she spent about 15 hours a week just managing all the different convoluted processes for several months.

The programs are essential for her to able to repair her property. Dickson got a little more than $34,000 from FEMA in direct assistance, which is just about the maximum available to individuals. Although in order to get that money she ultimately had to appeal twice. Even still, she took on a large amount of new debt through low-interest federal loans made available by the Small Business Administration.

So far, Dickson estimates all her repair costs will total about $140,000.

According to Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the State of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Response, more than $130 million in federal aid has reached Alaska in connection with the November 30th earthquake. The majority of that money, $84.6 million, is low-interest loans that have to be paid back.

“There was a subset of our population for whom the natural disaster turned in to a kind of financial disaster,” said Anchorage City Manager Bill Falsey. “We are still going to be feeling our way through that as the FEMA checks dry up and folks may still be in a bad way.”

It’s not just residential property owners that are still fixing damage from the last year. Public buildings and infrastructure are still being assessed, too.

“We have a few facilities that remain pretty crippled,” Falsey said.

In the hours and days following the quake, the city rushed to fix destroyed roads, busted water-lines, and direct response efforts out a 24-hour emergency operation center. For all that work during a federal disaster, the municipality gets to send the U.S. government the bill.

“We have submitted to FEMA reimbursement requests for about $40 million,” Falsey said.

That number doesn’t include all the repair work that’s needed at Anchorage School District buildings, which bear a much higher price tag. ASD estimates it needs $151,246,916 to fix all the earthquake-related damage. Some of the most severely affected facilities are in Eagle River, where two schools have been closed all year, causing a logistical nightmare shuffling elementary and middle schoolers up and down the highway.

Related: Two Eagle River schools to remain closed for a year due to Nov. 30 quake damage

Zidek said the current estimate that $270 to $300 million in federal recovery dollars will flow into Alaska over the next several years. What’s been paid out so far, he said, is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

The quake also had a psychological impact on southcentral communities that is harder to quantify. Falsey grew up in Anchorage, but wasn’t alive when the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake destroyed whole towns, and caused 131 deaths. Though he’d lived through plenty of small quakes, last year’s gave him a different perspective on them.

Read our complete coverage of the November 30, 2018 quake and recovery.

“In particular, I think of the aftershocks. As a guy who went to high school here, I always thought of 1964 as one big earthquake. But now, having lived through the 7.1, I think we all understand more viscerally that it is a week-long and months-long event,” he said.

Though the federal disaster process will take years fully play out, Falsey hopes the bulk of the work will be wrapped up in the coming year.

Leslie Dickson believes she is exceptionally well prepared to navigate the complicated world of disaster aid. A lawyer, trained in writing and researching, she knew how to deal with officials, write up claims, and appeal when she thought she’d been wrongly denied. That is hardly the norm. She’s part of some Facebook groups where people swap their own earthquake horror stories and re-building advice. There, Dickson sees much more tragic examples. Like a retiree draining her 401K to stay in her home.

“Another woman had said she’d given up health insurance for her family to pay for the repairs,” Dickson said.

Even though it’s meant huge amounts of new debt, anxiety, and a never-ending list of repairs, Dickson says she feels grateful she’s able to keep her home. She counts herself one of the lucky ones.