DOT shines in quake response

  • Crews with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities are seen at the site of repair work on the Glenn Highway on Dec. 3. The department has earned nationwide attention for its rapid repairs to major infrastructure damage following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 30. (Photo/Courtesy/Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
  • Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner John MacKinnon chats with Chief of Maintenance Bob Anderson at the Emergency Operations Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Dec. 3, MacKinnon's first day on the job. (Photo/Courtesy/Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

Alaska’s initial earthquake response was been so swift and comprehensive it left some wondering if it was actually true.

Those behind the fact-checking website Snopes.com felt compelled to verify the speediness of the Minnesota Drive off-ramp reconstruction photographs and claims for Outsiders. It was reopened before noon on the fourth day after the Nov. 30 morning earthquake.

The northbound section of the Glenn Highway that collapsed near Eklutna was reopened early the next morning.

By all counts, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities handling of a disaster that damaged infrastructure across Southcentral was one of numerous examples of remarkable emergency preparedness in many facets of life.

“The whole group in Central Region, whether it was design, construction, (maintenance and operations), they all performed as you would expect to,” DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon said in an interview. “They performed incredibly well and as a team.”

DOT officials said a March incident in which an overheight semi-trailer load struck and significantly damaged a Glenn Highway overpass in Eagle River — shutting down traffic on the only northerly route in and out of Anchorage — encouraged them to look critically at their response plans.

“We had those plans fresh” when the earthquake struck, spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said.

MacKinnon added, “The other thing that helped is that in instances like this you don’t have to ask for permission to do certain sorts of things — the permits to get — you just respond.”

When MacKinnon, appointed by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, reported to the Central Region office early Dec. 3 to take over DOT from outgoing commissioner Marc Luiken, much of the response and repair work had already progressed to the point where officials were ready to stand down the incident command center.

“They intended it to be a smooth transition and it worked very well,” he said.

However, many of the repairs, particularly to roads and bridges — as impressive as they’ve been in the days immediately following the quake — are temporary. Permanent road repairs meant to withstand up to 20 years of use will be commence next spring when conditions are more favorable, according to DOT officials.

Roughly a week after the quake struck DOT had identified 50 instances of damage to state roads, with eight considered “major” damage.

The Federal Highway Administration released $5 million in Emergency Relief funds to the Alaska DOT Dec. 1 at the request of then-Gov. Bill Walker and DOT officials. FHWA considers that initial $5 million to be a “down payment on the costs of short-term repairs while the state continues damage assessments for long-term repairs,” an agency release states.

A large portion of the cost of the permanent fixes is expected to be covered by federal disaster aid funding, which Alaska’s senators said Congress is likely to take up in January.

Exactly how much those permanent repairs will cost is still unclear, according to MacKinnon.

However, the Dunleavy administration will likely ask for funding from the Legislature for repairs to Vine Road in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and similar projects. The state took over work on the completely destroyed section of the borough road to allow borough officials to manage other earthquake-related issues, such as several badly damaged schools, MacKinnon said.

He also commended the contractor road crews that immediately went to work long after they were supposed to be done for the season.

“It’s not easy to get an asphalt batch plant going when it’s 30 degrees because that asphalt, it’s produced at over 400 degrees. That oil, it’s solid like tar and it’s got to be heated slowly. The aggregate has got water in it — it’s frozen — and it’s got to be broken up and warmed up,” said MacKinnon, who led the Associated General Contractors of Alaska for 11 years. “And again, everyone worked together so well on this thing — the folks at DOT and the industry.

“The saying I’ve heard is the worst brings out the best in people and it certainly did in this case.”

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/12/2018 - 12:15pm

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