1,400 aftershocks later, Anchorage newsrooms are shaken but reporting

December 3, 2018

KTVA-TV journalists in Anchorage, Alaska, wore hard hats Monday as they produced their newscasts, and engineers repaired the damage around them caused by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake Friday.

All weekend, journalists who were supposed to be off work reported to the office anyway. Besides the quake emergency, election officials were still conducting a recount in one race and the state was about to swear in a new governor. 

The journalists had work to do and the public needed them.

'I knew this was bad'

Friday at 8:29 a.m., Janis Harper was feeding her 16-month-old son a banana and Cheerios when a strong earthquake shook her house. She grabbed the baby, and she and her husband dove under the family dining table.

"I knew, to get under the table and hold on," she said.

Five years ago, Harper took the job as Assistant News Director at the newly launched news operation at KTVA in Anchorage. In July she moved up to News Director.

"I worked in Evansville, Indiana, Texas and in Kentucky so I was used to tornadoes, but you usually knew those were coming," she told Poynter. 

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Janis Harper

That first shock Friday morning seemed unusually long, even by Alaskan standards. But after the first aftershock rocked the dining room table a second time, Harper told her husband and son, "You two are OK, I have to go to work." 

The 10-minute drive to the office took an hour. She passed by an overpass where a car was trapped in a collapsed ramp. All the way into the office, she listened to her station's Facebook feed broadcasting live coverage of widespread damage and some mention that the station itself had been heavily damaged.

"People were being told to stay at home but that is where nobody wanted to be," Harper said.

The streets were jammed and the traffic signals didn't work.

"There were aftershocks; the car was shaking," she said.

"I knew from the Facebook feed that KTVA had damage. But I was not prepared for what I saw when I walked into the newsroom. I cried," Harper said. "Pieces of the ceiling fell down, there was water damage, but I kept thinking about how frighting it must have been for the people who were here. What if it had happened later when the newsroom was fully staffed?"

Nobody was hurt because the morning crew that was in the office dove beneath their desks — they even recorded one of the aftershocks from that vantage point. 

A morning news anchor kept his phone on and fed the live Facebook account as meteorologists sheltered themselves under the studio anchor desk but never stopped talking to the viewers.  

Five years ago this week, KTVA, owned by Denali Media Holdings, started producing news.  A few years later, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake destroyed homes on the nearby Kenai Peninsula and reminded Alaskans that they live in the "Ring of Fire" seismic fault zone that constantly shakes the region.

"After that quake, our station activated a protocol for how we would respond to an emergency," Harper said. Every manager calls in to a conference call "bridge line." 

"The first thing we want to know is everybody alright, then we start planning coverage."

The first day of coverage was 10 hours, non-stop.

Harper said the newsroom's focus right now is providing essential information.

"Schools are canceled for the week, trash service isn't running and people need to know how to get to the dump. There is a rockslide on a main highway south of Anchorage," Harper explained. "We have to give people the information they need first, then, when we can, we will start telling people's stories, what they experienced. But the focus right now is the critical information." 

Taking care of the team

Harper added, "In the middle of all of the chaos, news folks from across the country were watching. We currently have three open positions: (multimedia journalist), content producer, meteorologist. One of those may be filled by the end of the day though; a resourceful meteorologist was watching and has already applied and has an interview this afternoon."   

It's proof that newspeople are not like ordinary folks, who hear "1,400 earthquakes" and think "I don't want to live there."  Journalists hear "earthquakes" and ask "Where do I apply?"

"People who were not scheduled to work this weekend showed up anyway," Harper said. "I have heard people say they cannot sleep. With (more than) 1,200 aftershocks since Friday, our people say every shake woke them up. If somebody walks too hard on the floor everyone stopped."

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The news team at KTVA in Anchorage, Alaska, works amid earthquake damage. (Courtesy KTVA)

Harper said the station management team met this morning at a local restaurant. Everyone felt a strong vibration; the conversation stopped. An engineer said, "Brace."  

An air handler had kicked on. 

People who work in KTVA sales and creative services have bought up and delivered water, granola bars and sandwiches to keep the news crews running.

"People here care so much for each other," Harper said. "They brought in socks for the crews in the field. When you work in Alaska, you appreciate dry socks."