Long road ahead for schools hit hard by Nov. 30 earthquake

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - When the November 30th earthquake hit in 2018, local schools - and their students and staff - were sent into chaos.

At Dimond High School, at least one problem was obvious: Hallways flooded as alarms blared.

"This is a big change for a lot of them, and some of them went through an earthquake that was kind of scary to them," said George Vakalis, Asst. Superintendent for School Services and consultant for the Anchorage School District.

Dimond, however, one of 92 ASD facilities that sustained damage during the magnitude-7.1 earthquake, wasn't even the worst of the district's problems. Gruening Middle School is a different story, along with the currently-closed Eagle River Elementary.

Neither is expected to reopen anytime soon.

"There is some structural damage inside the building," ASD Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth said of Gruening.

Last year, the school's teachers and staff could be found packing up to move out. This year, classrooms are empty, and while evidence is visible throughout much of the building, two areas are of particular concern: A stairwell that's detaching from the building, and an interior wall that didn't appear to be a problem shortly after the quake hit, but has since been found separated from the school's roof. That large wall is currently being held up by large metal posts.

"Those two are really life-threatening," Roth said, "in the event, we had another seismic event. There could be complete failure inside the building."

So, a year later, Gruening remains red-tagged and unusable, with its students and teachers stuck since then in temporary classrooms at Chugiak High School.

"We're making it work," said Bobby Jeffs, Gruening principal, "but it's not ideal for our kids."

The students and staff usually found at Eagle River Elementary are currently housed at Homestead.

While ASD works on a plan to fix Gruening and Eagle River Elementary, the Mat-Su Borough School District is stuck working out whether it ought to replace one of its boarded-up schools. According to its project timeline, completion of the project - full details of which are yet to be determined - is expected around July of 2021. The group has, however, opted primarily for repairs along with a partial replacement, to the tune of an estimated $29 million.

Few were inside the Houston Middle School buildings when the earthquake hit. For now, and the foreseeable future, halls are empty, besides loads of debris and much visible damage still inside.

"There's a loss of confidence when you walk in here and see the roof separated from the walls," said Monica Goyette, MSBSD Superintendent.

While the dust has settled, the clocks also stopped shortly after the big quake.

"There was an aftershock after the earthquake," said Tony Weese, Mat-Su Borough School District Capitol Planning Construction Manager. "The generator decided to blow up, too. That's when the clocks stopped. Just before 10 something, 11."

Similar to Anchorage schools, Houston Middle merged with Houston High School for the foreseeable future.

"The state considers students in portables unhoused because it's not the ideal situation for safety or for academic performance," Goyette said.

The timelines for all of the school fixes, in both Anchorage and Houston, remain up in the air, along with the price tags for each project. Initially estimated to be a magnitude-7.0 earthquake, the final measurement was 7.1, and has left each affected school with its own to-do list, but similar goals. Currently, both school districts have bonds on the April ballot to help cover repair and replacement costs: An estimated $29 million for Houston and $39 for Gruening alone.

"Naturally, the kids and their parents would like them to be back to their own schools," Vakalis said. "It's human nature. We're working toward that goal."

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