News Articles

Earthquake sends Alaska Baptists into ministry mode

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (BP) — Scott Belmore was outside his house, loading some old furniture into his truck with his son and a friend when Alaska experienced one of its most powerful earthquakes in half a century. The men clung to the truck as it bounced on the driveway amid the shaking.

Inside the house, Dana Belmore was shaken to the floor in her bedroom and feared for the safety of their young daughter who had been reading on the bottom bunk in her room. The two of them, terrified, were able to reunite and flee the house after the shaking, still not believing what had just happened.

Hundreds of aftershocks followed the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck just outside Anchorage, the state’s largest city, Nov. 30 at about 8:30 a.m. local time. No fatalities or serious injuries were reported, but electricity was knocked out, roads broke apart and buildings were damaged.

Belmore, a Baptist campus minister at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, sprang into action as soon as he knew his family was safe. Their water heater had broken, so he crawled under the house to shut off the water.

Then he went house to house, checking on neighbors and calling some who had left for work to ask if he could enter their homes to turn off water and gas. He took pictures of damage to show them what they couldn’t yet get home to see for themselves.

At his own house, “everything was on the floor,” Belmore told Baptist Press. Contents of cabinets shook out and broke, including dishes. “We had one small dinner plate and a bowl left, and the only reason we had that is because it was in the dishwasher,” he said. “Lamps, mirrors and pictures were all destroyed.”

Though Alaska is the state most likely to have earthquakes, earthquake insurance is uncommon because of deductibles that are about 20 percent of a home’s value. With an earthquake like the one that struck Nov. 30, homeowners are facing significant costs to repair structures and replace possessions. But most will not exceed any deductibles that would have been in place if they had earthquake insurance. Like most residents and churches, the Belmores didn’t have earthquake insurance.

While chaos filled her home, Dana Belmore was thinking of the department of transportation workers who were working around the clock to repair a nearby bridge with less than six hours of daylight per day. She and her daughter went to their local Walmart in Eagle River and asked whether the store could donate some food for the workers. The Belmores, natives of Louisiana who have lived in Alaska five years, delivered pizza, rotisserie chicken, fruit, donuts, chips and other snacks to the workers to show their appreciation.

At First Baptist Church in Eagle River, the worship center was not usable two days after the earthquake. Ceiling tiles had fallen, books were piled high on the library floor, broken dishes were scattered on the kitchen floor, and dust and grit covered everything.

“All of these crashes were easily fixed by church members working together to put things in order,” Marge Cutting, a longtime staff member of the church, said in written comments to BP.

Beyond the mess, the church will hire a contractor to assess and repair the numerous cracks that appeared on church walls, Cutting said. “Some are sheetrock joints, but others, especially around door frames, may need more extensive repairs.”

An elementary school down the block from First Baptist was deemed unfit for occupancy, so children there are being bussed to other schools for the remainder of the academic year. Each morning and afternoon, First Baptist is lending its parking lot as a staging area for parents to drop off and pick up their children, Cutting said.

Randy Covington, executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention, told BP about 45 percent of the state’s population is in the area near the earthquake’s epicenter. And most Alaska Baptist churches are in that region.

Of the churches in the Anchorage area, 18 have buildings, 10 use rented facilities and seven churches share other church buildings, Covington said. About 10 Anchorage churches and four Mat-Su Valley churches shared reports of cosmetic damage to the interior of their buildings.

“Some churches are waiting on a structural engineer to examine their building,” Covington said in written comments. “These guys are very busy right now with inspections of municipal buildings taking priority. You must understand that Alaskans are hearty and resilient, even independent people, and they deal with their problems on their own and don’t usually ask for someone to help them.”

The Alaska Baptist Convention doesn’t have a Disaster Relief network, but they do have a group led by a volunteer who coordinates projects and has provided training for other volunteers.

“I don’t want to understate the scope of the damage done by the earthquake,” Covington said, “however, we are all amazed that it was not more devastating. The shake was short-lived, and since we live in an earthquake zone, code restrictions for construction of homes and public facilities are strict.

“Buildings weathered the shake quite well. Most of the damage to municipal buildings was to older buildings that we call ‘pre-64’ construction. Following the 9.2 earthquake in 1964 when many buildings had to be torn down and rebuilt, new codes were implemented for public as well as private construction.”

Covington added, “Alaskans are tough, resilient people or they wouldn’t be living in Alaska. They love the challenging lifestyle, and when something out-of-the-ordinary knocks them down, they get back up, brush themselves off, roll up their shirtsleeves and get back to work. They rarely wave their hands in the air and say, ‘Oh, look what terrible thing happened to me!’ That’s not their nature. They don’t make a big deal about it.”

Belmore, a Mission Service Corps missionary with the North American Mission Board, noted the lack of looting and other crimes after the earthquake.

“That’s one thing about Alaskans: We work together to help each other out. It may not be all believers that are working together, but we link arms together as a community, and we want to do whatever we can to help our neighbors,” Belmore said.

    About the Author

  • Erin Roach