The Nov. 30 earthquake that rocked Southcentral Alaska caused significant damage. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it could have been a lot worse if not for Anchorage's seismic gas shutoff valves. 

"These are an important part of how to protect the community pre-disaster," Jack Heesch with FEMA's external affairs department said. "As we saw, we had 117 municipal facilities protected with the gas valves, every one of them worked. Eighty-three of those were in schools."

The valves, which react to shaking, are designed to stop the flow of gas to buildings in the event of an earthquake.  

"It's got a ball in here that when it shakes, dislodges. A flapper goes down, shuts the gas off and then the gas pressure from the meter set is what keeps it closed," Anchorage School District Project Manager Calvin Mundt said. "That's basically how it operates."

Using a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant, 15 schools installed the valves in July 2009, a release from FEMA said. The agency's hazard mitigation grant program helped fund valves for another 68 schools.

Both FEMA grant programs fund 75% of mitigation projects, with state and local governments coming up with the remaining quarter.

"If we didn't have these and let's say a gas line broke in the mechanical room, the building could blow up, fill up with gas and blow up," said Alan Czajkowski, ASD's director of maintenance and operations.

FEMA said Ernest Gruening Middle School in Eagle River was one of those 15 schools whose valve was installed years ago. After shaking from the Nov. 30 earthquake subsided, maintenance crews smelled gas and found a 90-degree elbow pipe had sheared off.

"The odor came from gas residue after the shut-off valves, working as expected, choked the feed into the building," the release said. "The gas odor was not unusual after the valves shut off because there was still gas residue in the pipes."

Valves were also installed in 34 other facilities in Anchorage — a project that wasn't complete until a few years ago, Czajkowski said. FEMA said this included the police department, fire stations, an emergency operations center, the Egan Convention Center, two sports arenas and two senior centers.

Part of the earthquake mitigation upgrades was to Ben Boeke Ice Arena. Without the upgrades, FEMA's Heesch said the arena could have been lost. 

"The ounce of prevention, is worth the pound of cure," Heesch said. "Considering that, had we lost the Ben Boeke, how many millions and millions of dollars it would take to rebuild that facility, if we did it at all. And we know how vital that is to the community."

Now, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is working with the state to get FEMA mitigation grants for their schools, hoping to install the same seismic gas shutoff valves.

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