Bad timing: Power outage hit Earthquake Center before 7.9 shaker

State Seismologist Michael West. Photo: Liz Ruskin

The tsunami warning that rattled Alaskans last week exposed weak spots all over the disaster safety net. An unfortunate coincidence struck the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks that night.

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“Twenty minutes or so before the earthquake occurred, unrelated, Golden Valley Electric Association had a modest regional power outage,” State Seismologist Michael West, director of the Earthquake Center, told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.

West said the outage shut off networking equipment at the Geophysical Institute, where the Earthquake Center is housed, on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“So essentially, the Alaska Earthquake Center, all of its data and products, were dark for about an hour or so,” West said. “Yeah, not a proud moment, really.”

The center collects data from about 130 seismic monitoring stations around the state, what West calls the backbone of earthquake monitoring in Alaska. But the Tsunami Warning Center had other stations supplying information. If the earthquake had been catastrophic, West said the data outage might’ve been a problem for, say, responders trying to determine which communities were hardest hit.

West told committee chair Lisa Murkowski this was a known vulnerability.

“We’ve been clear with stakeholders for several years now that we do not have back up systems in place,” West said. “We do not have modern continuity of operations. I mean, the reasons are fairly simple.”

West said the center’s revenue sources, state and federal, have been pared back.

West acknowledged the bad timing was fairly astounding.

“When we develop in-house scenarios to test,” West said after the hearing, “this is one that people would write off as unrealistic: ‘Let’s have a power failure, and then an earthquake!'”

A spokeswoman at the Fairbanks utility confirmed the power failure was unrelated to the quake. She said heavy snow fell on a distribution line Monday night, briefly cutting power to part of the city.

The Earthquake Center continued to put out information on social media early Tuesday morning, during its data outage.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at