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How Alaska repaired its earthquake-damaged roads in just a few days

The last major earthquake shaken by Anchorage last week was strong enough to turn paved roads into broken, ragged debris. But within a few days, the crews managed to repair the worst and heaviest traffic in Alaska's largest city.

Anchorage has a population of nearly 300,000 residents spanning more than 1,900 square kilometers – an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. This space is criss-crossed by streets, asphalt vital arteries of the population. When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit last week, some of the most visceral images showed roads that were broken. But within days, many of these cracked highways had been smoothed out by 24/7 crew members into paving bands .

The rapid response to damage at Anchorage shows how much time and money can be invested in the preparations for these major infrastructure-inhibiting events there is no way to say when or where a disaster will occur.

"We have more earthquakes than any other state in the Union," says Shannon McCarthy, a spokesman for Alaska's Transportation and Public Transportation Department. Therefore, Alaska takes the preparation of the earthquake very seriously. The largest earthquake ever recorded in the country shook Anchorage to the marrow in 1964, causing a deadly tsunami, leaving behind damaged buildings, winding streets, and a legacy that had given rise to earthquake preparedness and politics for years. Strong building regulations introduced after 1964 helped to make the area safer than other earthquake-prone areas such as Seattle.

The 50th anniversary of the 1964 quake occurred just four years ago, and officials took it to be given the opportunity to update their earthquake plans, drill drills, and generally prepare for when a quake would occur in the future. "I think that really helped," said McCarthy.

Over the last six months, a less groundbreaking development has also helped prepare the local teams for this moment. In March, a truck crashed into a bridge on the only main road linking Anchorage to one of its suburbs, stopping the passage for days. In the months following the collision, the Department of Transportation went through its recovery plans in case of further damage.

All these preparations made the inhabitants of Alaska ready to take action as soon as the shaking of the first earthquake subsided. Bridge inspectors stationed in Alaska's capital, Juneau, packed up that night and boarded a plane. When they arrived before midnight, they immediately tested the 243 bridges affected by the shocks. After checking in damaged homes and offices, government workers and contractors in the earthquake zone got down to work and prepared to do a job that was not easy at this time of the year.

They worked around the clock to clear the broken asphalt so that it could not be melted later. Then crews of heavy equipment began to excavate water-saturated sediments that slipped or sank during the quake. They drove in or collected fresh material and compacted it to create a robust earthwork base. Thereupon they laid up large stones, finer gravel and finally asphalt.

"Our asphalt factories were all shut down for the winter," says McCarthy. Thick and tarry asphalt must be heated from a solid form before it can spread in a thick layer to form a road. But Alaska is bitterly cold in late autumn, and frozen asphalt can take a week or more to merge into a sticky, pliable material. Soon after the earthquake, the owners of asphalt plants switched on their heaters. "We were lucky that they did that," says McCarthy. "When we finished the earthworks, the asphalt factories were ready."

According to McCarthy, this was one of The first paving had occurred in winter for the first time. The snow was moving fast in the area, but the still warm asphalt remained clear just long enough for the crews to paint temporary lines on the roads. They could not use the paint normally used on Alaska roads, an epoxy resin filled with glass beads and chippings to prevent cars from slipping. It resists the brutal wear and tear that the Alaskans wear on their roads in the colder months, with shards of sand and tires wrapped in chains holding the cars on the road, but other colors are quickly forgotten. In contrast to asphalt, when applying this paint it is necessary to wait for summer when the weather is more pleasant than it is now.

The crews worked on some days with heavy, wet snow and strong winds of 65 mph. And the weather was not the only natural element that caused pain – the ground shook with almost constant aftershocks. In addition to that caused seasickness in some Alaskans the shaking also carved crescent-shaped bites from some lanes or shook the ground so hard that the ground settled under the newly paved streets and over.

Repaired road near Mirror Lake
Alaska DOT & PF

The earthquake struck Friday morning at 8:29 am local time. By four o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, all eight major transport corridors, severely damaged by the earthquake, were reopened. Dozens of others are still waiting to be repaired, and officials are calling for the selfies to stay away from their still-cracked surfaces, no matter how visually appealing they may be.

Similar situations occur in other parts of the world, especially in bottlenecks where a road network narrows to valuable lanes. Japan can repair a cross-eaten hole in less than a week. California, which has seen far more dramatic earthquake-related road damage, has similar plans.

As impressive as the completed sections are, it is only a temporary solution. While most roads in Alaska have to be built for 20 years, they are only meant to carry people through the summer. When warmer again, the asphalt factories will revive and the crews will return to the same once-destroyed places to build more durable roads.

Roads are important threads of human civilization around the world, but they are particularly interwoven in the life of Alaska, where the wilderness is sparsely littered with cities , There are fewer detours to redirect traffic. "Alaska differs from many states in that in many cases we only have one street on and one street. That applies to Anchorage. We have a road to the north and a road to the south. Therefore, we are particularly vulnerable when the line is interrupted.


In this case, the line's disruptions were quickly repaired, reflecting the quake against rebound in other areas of the city. Utilities remained intact, utilities were quickly restored, damage was minimal, and most importantly, there were no casualties.

In a sense, the minimal damage and recovery provide a glimmer of hope to communities exposed to other natural hazards. These are hurricanes, fires, floods, rising sea levels or more earthquakes. Preparation makes the difference.

"In terms of disaster, in my opinion, it says more about who we are than what we've suffered," said Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, Saturday's press conference after the AP . "The people have moved together. We followed the existing plans. We searched one after another. And when people around the world and around the world look at it, they will say, "We want to do things anchored like that because Anchorage did it right," Berkowitz said.

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