New Houston High School building opens over 4 years after 2018 quake

Houston High School ribbon cutting
Over four years after the November 2018 earthquake, Gov. Mike Dunleavy cut the ribbon at the new Houston High School building. (Tim Rockey/AKPM)

Houston Middle and High school students have been crammed into the same building for over four years since a massive magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska in 2018. The quake damaged roads, houses, and other infrastructure, and did irreparable damage to Houston Middle School.

On Thursday, officials cut the ribbon on the brand-new Houston High School building. Ben Howard served as principal of Houston Middle in 2018, and is now the principal at Houston High. 

“When I reflect on our students and our community, one word always comes to mind: resiliency,” Howard said. “Our school community is resilient. In times of adversity, we stuck together and persevered — through crowded hallways, interrupted learning time, a cramped cafeteria — and so much more.”

The new building is on the site of the old Houston Middle School, which was built in 1985. The previous high school building, built in 2003, will now become the middle school. When the earthquake damaged Houston Middle in 2018, the district moved 15 portable classrooms to the Houston campus and both schools united under one roof as Houston Jr./Sr. High School. 

The high school now features brand-new career and technical education classrooms to teach welding, construction, aviation and woodworking, as well as a medical training facility. 

All of the 338 students inside Houston Middle in 2018 evacuated the building without injury. During the quake, students at Houston Middle helped get classmates and teachers out of the building to safety. The Mat-Su Borough showed a video they had produced at the start of the assembly with nationwide newscasts from that day, as well as time-lapse videos of the construction of the new building and testimony from staff. 

Dunleavy toured the damage to Houston Middle in December 2018, just weeks after he had been elected and prior to his swearing in. Dunleavy recalled how students carried one classmate to safety.

“I want to thank again the staff, the students, the teachers,” Dunleavy said. “Because what you demonstrated on that day I think makes all of us proud to be Alaskans, so I want to thank you.”  

Seniors at Houston were seventh graders when the quake hit, and provided the backdrop for the ribbon-cutting. After so many years spent together as Houston Jr./Sr. High, Howard became emotional when he spoke to students on Thursday.

“We knew deep down that our time was coming,” Howard said. “We knew a new school would be built, and that we would thrive in it. Ladies and gentlemen, that day is now.”

The borough and school district waited years for a response from FEMA to determine whether they would receive federal funding and attempt to repair the gym and academic wing of the old Houston Middle building, or replace it with a new school. FEMA issued a decision in 2020 that the damage was greater than 50% of the building’s value and provided funding for the new construction.

Borough Mayor Edna DeVries lamented supply chain issues during her brief comments to the assembly, which partially contributed to the delay of the school’s opening to students from last fall to this spring. DeVries thanked the contractors who built the school, which drew the loudest reaction from the crowd.

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at trockey@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8487. Read more about Tim here

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