Recovery

For Many Southcentral Alaska Families, the Quake Isn't Over. Dozens Are Still Displaced from Unsafe Homes.

More than 40 people had been placed in hotel rooms as of Friday through a state disaster program, said Logan Stolpe, a public information officer for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

by Devin Kelly, Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage / December 18, 2018
Al and Lyn Matthews show structural cracks in their home in south Anchorage, Alaska, following earthquakes Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. AP/Michael Dinneen

(TNS) — Albert Schoonbeek and Candice Roberson slept on a mattress in their living room for the first few nights after the Nov. 30 earthquake rocked Southcentral Alaska.

The bedroom was unsafe, they worried. The 7.0 quake caused the floor of their garage, which was on the same side of the house as the bedroom, to drop half a foot. More bad news followed. Last week, an engineer told the family the unsteady garage could collapse in a strong aftershock — and take down the entire East Anchorage house with it.

Schoonbeek and Roberson, who are married, moved in with a friend. They expect to stay there for months. They don’t yet know how to fix their home or if they even can.

“We’re feeling dead in the water,” Schoonbeek said, standing in front of the house on a recent morning. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen next or what steps to take.”

At least a few dozen displaced


Schoonbeek and Roberson are among an unknown number of people displaced by the Nov. 30 earthquake. A city map released earlier this week showed more than 100 homes and buildings in Anchorage and Chugiak-Eagle River had been found to be structurally unsafe.

More than 40 people had been placed in hotel rooms as of Friday through a state disaster program, said Logan Stolpe, a public information officer for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The hotel stay is for people with no other options, he said, and extends up to 30 days. Beyond that, homeowners and renters can apply for aid through the state’s individual assistance program at ready.alaska.gov. The aid includes up to 18 months of temporary housing for homeowners and up to three months of housing for renters, Stolpe said.

But the state didn’t have statistics on temporary homelessness caused by the quake, Stolpe said. He said it was hard to track those who moved in with friends or family. The total extent of the damage is also still becoming clear as inspections continue. Two other families in Schoonbeek and Roberson’s Muldoon cul de sac have evacuated, but none of the homes showed up as red-tagged on the city map.

For Schoonbeek, 32, and Roberson, 30, the past two weeks have been filled with visits from engineers, frustrating calls to insurance and mortgage companies and conflicting messages about whether they should stay or go.

The couple’s small house, with its blue trim and bright yellow door, was built in 1982 at a time of rapid subdivision growth in Anchorage. Schoonbeek and Roberson bought it in 2016, liking the quiet neighborhood and the views of the Chugach Mountains.

From the street, their home looks like it may have survived the quake more or less unscathed. But a closer look reveals the extent of the damage.

The floor of the garage was ripped from a sunken foundation. Daylight streamed in between the floor and the bottom of the doors. Fresh snow now covers a ruined deck that Roberson was forced to hack away from the building with a circular saw. Schoonbeek shoved against the garage, and it shivered on impact.

Inside the house, doors and windows won’t open and the main hallway stands crooked. It feels like a “fun house,” as Schoonbeek said.

Not safe to stay


Roberson is a counselor at a Mountain View elementary school. She was driving to work when the earthquake struck around 8:30 a.m. Trees dumped snow on her car, a green light flashed and she saw something that looked like lightning. She called her husband, who was standing outside his office building on Minnesota Drive in West Anchorage. He told her she should turn around and check the house.

When Roberson got there, the front door wouldn’t open. More than an hour later, after fighting traffic, Schoonbeek arrived and forced it open. The initial damage seemed manageable. Very little had fallen from cupboards or bookcases. The sewage line, though, was backing up.

The next day, the couple looked up engineering firms on the internet. Schoonbeek called more than a half-dozen to find one that did residential inspections. The engineer who came told them the house was a bit off-kilter but safe to live in, Schoonbeek said. The garage was unsafe, the engineer said, and would need to be torn down.

The couple spent a few nights in the living room because they thought the end of the house that was closest to the garage was more dangerous. Every vibration of the earth triggered a flood of worry.

On Tuesday, the engineer called back. He said he had reviewed pictures of the house after doing other inspections. The damage was worse than he thought, and he wanted them to move out, Schoonbeek said.

Schoonbeek and Roberson called another engineering firm for a second opinion. After another inspection, they were handed a “red tag” -- a red one-page report reading “UNSAFE” at the top.

The second engineer told them that no part of the house was safe, and that it may be a total loss.

“He said a big aftershock was going to bring this whole house down,” Schoonbeek said.

The couple emptied their fridge, packed up clothes and toiletries and moved out small electronics. Roberson grabbed a box of family photos and put it in the trunk of her car.

Before turning to friends, Schoonbeek called a few hotels. Most hotels he called were all booked, he said. Others wouldn’t take them because of their cat, Nina. Later, Roberson said she got several calls from state officials asking if they needed a hotel room. They worried hotel expenses would cut into later state assistance for their damaged home.

Stolpe, the state public information officer, said the state is helping keep pets and families together in hotel rooms. He also said a hotel stay would not detract from a later grant to pay for damage.

For Alaskans contending with serious structural damage, the financial questions are looming large. Like many in Anchorage and Mat-Su, Schoonbeek and Roberson learned they weren’t covered by earthquake insurance. The engineers have roughly estimated that it would cost $50,000 just to eject their house back to level ground. Fixing or tearing down the garage or repairing the foundation and damaged doors and sheetrock would cost even more, Schoonbeek said.

A major federal disaster declaration, which opens up additional aid, may be months away. Speaking to reporters in Anchorage and Eagle River on Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she thought the aid was likely to come. But federal aid would be capped at $34,000. For the state, the maximum amount is about half that, up to $17,000. That won’t cover the most serious property damage, Murkowski said.

“This is not to make you whole,” Murkowski said. “This is to help with assistance.”

She said her office was prepared to help connect individuals and businesses with disaster-related services.

Red sign or yellow?

Since the earthquake, Schoonbeek and Roberson received conflicting messages from engineers and the city about what it would take to fix their home. Or whether it was even safe to stay there.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the couple discovered a yellow sign on their garage. “Restricted use,” the sign declared. It had been placed by a municipal official. The sign said not to enter the garage but had little other information. Schoonbeek and Roberson had no idea what to make of it. It seemed to conflict with the red tag handed out by the engineer.

Together, the couple puzzled over the sign Thursday.

“Doesn’t it say, don’t occupy the home?” Roberson asked, looking at the paperwork.

“It says, ‘Don’t occupy the garage, and you are allowed restricted entry to your home,’ ” Schoonbeek replied. “But I don’t know what that means.”

“Does that mean you can’t stay overnight?” Roberson said. “It doesn't specify that,” Schoonbeek answered.

The yellow sign listed the name of a city official but no number to call. Only a “governing official” could remove, alter or cover it, the sign said.

The city also placed yellow cards on the houses on either side of Roberson and Schoonbeek’s. Those neighbors have evacuated too, Schoonbeek said. At another house down the street, a neighbor had been entering his house through his back door because his front door wouldn’t open after the earthquake, Schoonbeek said. Other houses on the block showed no signs of damage at all.

Ross Noffsinger, the city’s acting building official, said in a phone interview Friday that city inspectors never actually entered the home. He said the yellow sign was based on a “window survey,” meant that from the outside, the structure did not appear to be obviously unsafe.

But the engineer hired by Roberson and Schoonbeek got a much better look, Noffsinger said. He said he would go with the engineer’s recommendation to evacuate. The private engineers are also likely the best people to point in the direction of the best way to fix the house, Noffsinger said.

If the house isn’t fixable, Schoonbeek and Roberson aren’t sure what they will do. They don’t want to walk away and force a foreclosure.

In her counseling job at school, Roberson is supposed to be offering emotional support, she said. But that task has become harder, she said, as she navigates her own crisis.

“I told my boss ... I’ll do my best,” Roberson said.

They do feel lucky, with a place to stay for the next few months. As the holidays approach, the couple also made an agreement: No big decisions until January.

Matt Tunseth contributed reporting.

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