Residents of Mentasta Lake picking up pieces after quake

Posted: Monday, November 11, 2002

MENTASTA LAKE (AP) -- When the earthquake struck this rural community in Interior Alaska, 20-foot-tall spruce trees whipped back and forth, slapping the ground on each side like windshield blades.

Tree trunks split open. Water squirted from the earth. A wave shattered ice on the lake and threw thick blocks on the shore. Mountains slumped. Roads buckled and cracks yawned in the earth. Houses rocked and jumped, shattering dishes and toppling TVs. Tap water turned brown, sewer lines broke, oil tanks toppled.

People found themselves knocked down for at least 80 seconds of up-down, side-to-side washing-machine action.

''It was like riding a boat on the roughest sea,'' said Angela Pete, at home with her seven children and niece. ''When it stopped moving, the house came down hard.''

But when one of the most powerful quakes ever recorded in the United States eased a few minutes later, no one was killed and few were hurt. The most serious injury reported so far occurred when Mentasta elder Cherry Nicolai fell on the ice and broke an arm as she fled her home, said tribal officials.

''We believe in God, we believe in Jesus,'' said Mentasta Lake tribal administrator Kathryn Martin. ''We just know that God was watching over us here.''

The Slana-Mentasta Lake region, about 250 miles northeast of Anchorage, is a country of log cabins hunkered deep in spruce forest, bounded by the snow-covered foothills of the Alaska Range.

For days after a 7.9 earthquake ruptured along the Denali fault on Nov. 3, shocks continued to jolt residents of the area. People waded into homes and businesses awash in dishes, bottles, cans, books and knickknacks. Crews began repairing a highway rumpled with crevices that reached up to 8 feet down.

Representatives from state and federal agencies were inspecting homes and buildings and investigating reports of damage. The American Red Cross had sent teams to several communities, and other agencies were delivering donated food, clothing and building supplies.

''The remote location of this (quake) was a godsend,'' said Anchorage engineer John Aho. Aho was in Mentasta Lake with the state Division of Emergency Services to make sure buildings were safe. Much of the damage was cosmetic, but could be costly to repair, Aho said.

''What I've seen so far is absolutely amazing,'' Paul Whipple, a consultant working with the Copper River Basin Regional Housing Authority, told about 100 people at a community meeting in Mentasta Lake. ''All of the structures in this community were basically acting like boats riding out a storm.''

The quake hit at 1:12 p.m. on Nov. 3 at a depth of about three miles.

Over the next 80 seconds, the new rupture ''unzipped'' the Denali fault through nearly 150 miles of the Alaska Range, said state seismologist Roger Hansen.

People in 143 North American zip codes, from Louisiana to New York, from California to Alaska, reported feeling the motion. The energy released made it the largest quake yet measured in the world in 2002.

It sliced right through Mentasta.

At the Mentasta Lodge, located on the fault, owner Linda Lester was in the kitchen when an employee shouted ''Earthquake!'' She bolted outside and immediately lost her footing on a glaze left by freezing rain.

Crouched on bare hands and bruised knees, Lester watched cracks rupture the parking lot, producing ridges in the chip-seal that looked like the traces of giant gophers. Chunks rose up, the highway wrenched away from the driveway, a log guest cabin tilted over backward.

From inside the lodge came the clamor of dumping freezers and spilling shelves. An ATM leapt from its bolts. Bottles of syrup and sauce and beer shattered, covering surfaces with sticky, smelly goo. Sewer and water lines snapped in the basement. Walls bulged, floors heaved, Sheetrock cracked.

But Lester's attention was drawn to her Chevy van. It was prancing toward her on successive jolts.

''I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm going to get run over by my own van,' '' she said.

A few miles to the northwest along Mentasta Lake, Benny Funk, 61, and his dog, Pal, burst from his log home. He fell to the icy ground and watched as an avalanche roared down a mountain and his porch shifted and buckled.

But then Funk saw something he'd never imagined -- a big wave surging from the benign lake he had known all his life.

''As I was sliding around on the ice, it looked like a tsunami wave came up into the yard,'' he said. ''It washed some huge ice chucks up in the yard.''

Some of the worst cracks sheared through the ground beneath the home of the Pete family. David Pete was outdoors.

''All of a sudden, I got shocked to the ground, and all I could see was trees touching the ground like windshield blades swishing back and forth. I've never seen such great power.''

As the land under his house sank, his driveway buckled. A hole wrenched open in the forest floor, exposing roots and boulders, a spruce tree ripped up the middle like a twig twisted too far. As the shaking eased, he ran inside the family's small cabin.

Six of the eight kids had been watching TV and eating a late breakfast of cereal in a bedroom. The other two had been in the kitchen with their mother, Angela, who held on as the house ''bounced'' and landed hard.

''All my dishes, all my food, everything thing was tossed -- the TV, the VCR, the refrigerator,'' she said.

In the bedroom, 13-year-old Savannah and 12-year-old Sarah had gathered the other children and had them sitting quietly on the bed. It turned out they were studying earthquakes at the Mentasta School and knew what they should do.

''I'm very proud of them,'' Pete said.

''It was really scary,'' Sarah added. ''Every time there was an aftershock, we all piled on the bed.''

In an hour, the family caught a ride into the village and joined others at the community hall.

Angela Pete says she has been watching her children closely since the quake. Her 4-year-old son has been sleeping with and some of her older children have been waking up at night.

''I was crying this morning -- it all got to me this morning,'' Pete said. ''There's little possibility of going back to the house. I really don't know what we're going to do.''

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