More Funds Sought for Quake Hazard Program


Alaska Beacon

The nation’s Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program would get a modest boost in funding and some expanded responsibilities under a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and a colleague from another earthquake-prone state, Sen. Alex Padila, D-California, on Wednesday.

The Murkowski-Padilla bill would reauthorize the program for five years. It proposes to appropriate $175.4 million per year to the program for fiscal years 2024 through 2028. Of that, about $100 million would go to the U.S. Geological Survey, $58 million to the National Science Foundation and the remainder split between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The prior reauthorization set funding at $171.65 million per year across the four federal agencies for 2018 to 2023, though the 2023 funding was slightly less than that, said Joe Plesha, a spokesperson for Murkowski.

The Murkowski-Padilla bill proposes some updates to the program.

One would direct state and local governments and entities to create inventories of buildings and structures at high risk of earthquakes.

The bill would also expand the definition of “seismic events” to include earthquake-caused tsunamis. Along with tsunamis, it proposes to direct the agencies to consider other hazards associated with earthquakes, including liquefaction, landslides, structure fires and “the compounding effects of climate on these hazards,” along with potential mitigation measures.

The bill would also add tribal governments to the list of state and local entities participating in the program and receiving technical assistance.

For Alaska, earthquake safety is an important subject. About a tenth of the world’s earthquakes occur in Alaska. Events include the world’s second-largest earthquake on record, the magnitude 9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. Since 1900, about 1,000 earthquakes a month have happened in Alaska, according to the Alaska Seismic Hazards Safety Commission.

A 2021 study of damages in and near Anchorage caused by the magnitude 7.1 quake of 2018 recommended several policy changes to improve building safety. The study found that in general, buildings constructed after 1990 fared better than older structures because safety codes were more strictly enforced starting then. Damages in outlying communities, particularly the suburban areas of Eagle River and Chugiak, were greater, and the study noted that code compliance and inspections are not required there, even for larger commercial buildings. In all, the 2018 earthquake “was not a sufficient test to assess the actual seismic vulnerability of Southcentral Alaska’s built environment,” and numerous hazards remain, said the study, led by Wael Hassan of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

In a statement, Murkowski referred to the 1964 and 2018 events, both of which struck Southcentral Alaska, the state’s most populous region.

“Alaska is no stranger to massive earthquakes that can cause serious damage to our communities. From the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the 7.1 earthquake in 2018, to the thousands of smaller quakes that rattle our state each year—it’s critical we invest in programs that keep us prepared and ready to respond to disaster. That’s why I’m proud to join Senator Padilla of California on the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act, which will modernize earthquake safety programs in western states, reinforcing our readiness for future seismic activity,” Murkowski said in the statement.

Padilla, in the statement issued by Murkowski’s office, cited California’s vulnerabilities.

“It is not a matter of if, but when the next major earthquake strikes, and Californians know the importance of staying prepared,” he said. “The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program supports crucial tools like the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System, works to advance scientific understanding of earthquakes, and strengthens earthquake resilience in communities nationwide. This is a bipartisan effort, and with the safety of our communities at stake, we must reauthorize this critical program as soon as possible.”

Nationally, annual earthquake losses to national building stock are estimated at $14.7 billion and total national economic exposure to earthquake losses of over $107 trillion, of which over 29% is in California, according to a FEMA report issued in April.



Alaska Gets New Alert As Syphilis Rates Rise


Alaska Beacon

With cases of syphilis skyrocketing, including dangerous infections that are passed from pregnant women to their infants, new recommendations have been issued for much more widespread testing for the disease, the Alaska Department of Health announced on Tuesday.

All sexually active adults under 45 should get annual tests, the department said. That corresponds to new recommendations issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the department said.

Testing is especially important to prevent congenital syphilis – the infection that is spread from pregnant women to their fetuses. Results of congenital syphilis can be grave. They include stillbirth or death shortly after birth, brain or nerve damage that causes blindness or deafness, bone deformities and other serious health problems, according to the CDC.

“Alaska currently has one of the highest rates of syphilis in the country,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a statement released by the department. “Everyone of reproductive age who is sexually active should be tested for syphilis if they are unsure of their syphilis status.” Everyone should be retested each time they have a new sexual partner and be tested every three to six months if they have multiple partners, Zink added.

Rates of syphilis have increased dramatically in recent years in Alaska, across the nation and in numerous countries around the world.

While only 20 cases were recorded in Alaska in 2016, there were 424 known cases in 2022, according to the department.

Also in 2022, there were 12 congenital syphilis cases identified in Alaska, a record for the state. All were in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, according to department statistics. From 2020 to 2022, the total was 25, including one that ended in a stillbirth. In comparison, there was only one congenital syphilis case identified in Alaska in 2018 and none in 2019.

Alaska in 2021 ranked eighth in the nation for syphilis and 20th for congenital syphilis, said Dr. Elizabeth Ohlsen, the acting program manager for the state’s HIV/STD program. Data was not yet available for 2022  and 2023 rankings, she said.

Alaska health officials are concerned that the state’s rates will continue to climb because Alaska has high rates for other sexually transmitted infections, Ohlsen said. The state has the nation’s highest rate for chlamydia and ranks 10th for gonorrhea, “so opportunities for transmission are there,” she said by email.

Prenatal care is key to preventing congenital syphilis, she said. “Pregnant women should be tested at least three times during pregnancy based on a national recommendation: once during the first trimester, once during the third trimester, and again at delivery. Those with additional risk factors should be tested more often,” she said.

Alaska law, like laws in other states, requires syphilis screening at pregnant patients’ first prenatal visits. However, not all pregnant women get even that first visit.  Most of the Alaska congenital syphilis cases seen so far “have been associated with mothers who had inadequate or no prenatal care,” Ohlsen said.

That is similar to the national pattern. Nationally, the number of congenital syphilis cases increased by more than 10-fold from 2012 to 2022, the CDC reported.

Most of the cases stemmed from lack of prenatal testing entirely or inadequate testing, according to a CDC analysis.

Syphilis is caused by a bacterial infection. When detected early, it can be cured with antibiotics.



Education Reform Bill Taking Shape in House


Alaska Beacon

Alaska legislators took their first formal look at an anticipated public education reform bill on Wednesday, one that includes less direct funding to public schools than advocates have previously requested.

Lon Garrison, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards (standing) and Lisa Parady, (sitting, center) executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, talk with Republican Reps. Julie Coulombe of Anchorage and Justin Ruffridge of Soldotna after a hearing of the House Rules Committee on Wednesday. Also in the picture is an aide to Ruffridge. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Senate Bill 140, originally drafted to simply increase the minimum Internet speed at some rural schools, was revised Wednesday in a hearing of the House Rules Committee and now appears to be on the fast track toward a vote of the full House, something that could happen before the end of the month.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage and chair of the committee, has scheduled public testimony for Saturday morning, and lawmakers must submit amendment proposals before the end of the day Friday, a sign of fast movement.

Fast movement doesn’t always mean a smooth process, however.

“I think it’s going to be very contentious. Any time you deal with education, it’s going to be contentious,” Johnson said. 

The bill now includes several education-related pieces of legislation, including bonus payments for teachers, a new approval process for charter schools, greater funding for correspondence schools and more help for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. It also keeps the funding for rural school internet upgrades and more funding for school transportation, something added by the House Finance Committee.

The item drawing the most attention, however, is a proposed permanent increase to the state’s base student allocation, the per-student funding formula that provides the basis for most public school funding in Alaska.

The bill proposes a permanent $300 increase to the BSA, as it’s commonly known. That 5% rise is less than school districts have said is needed to keep up with inflation. 

The Association of Alaska School Boards has recommended a permanent $1,413 increase, and lawmakers last year approved a temporary $680 increase that was halved by a veto from Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Members of the state Senate and some in the House have called for a permanent increase of at least $680. Last year, the Senate passed a bill that included a $680 increase, but that legislation hasn’t moved through the House.

“I think there’s a lot of support in this body just based on votes, based on discussion in the finance committee, of the BSA increase of not less than $680,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage.

But in the House, that isn’t certain. On Tuesday, House lawmakers declined by a single vote to call a joint session that would have been a first step toward overturning Dunleavy’s veto. 

Another element that concerns public education advocates is a section that would allow the state board of education to authorize new charter schools, sidestepping local school districts in the process.

That could create a situation where a local school district is placed in charge of administering a charter school that it doesn’t want, said Lon Garrison, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards.

“When there’s controversy and controversy around something, how does that get mitigated?” he said.

Fields said he’s worried that the section could be a back-door way of funding religious schools, but legislators in the audience said they were confused by that notion, because the Alaska Constitution specifically bars public funding for private schools. 

Deputy Attorney General Cori Mills wrote an opinion in 2022 that says it’s likely constitutional for home-school students to use public funding for one or two private-school classes, but not for most of their classes.

Other provisions of the bill are less controversial. Last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed cash bonuses of $5,000 to $15,000 for teachers in various parts of the state. Fields said he supports the idea, and other members of the House’s predominantly Democratic minority have said the same.

A bill from Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, that would increase support funding for deaf and hard-of-hearing students has also been incorporated into SB 140, as have two separate bills from Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna.

One of his sections would preserve a tax credit for companies that donate to educational institutions. Another would make correspondence programs — typically used by home-schooled students — eligible for a funding multiplier that’s now only available to traditional public schools. That would increase the amount of money available to those correspondence programs.

Intensive lobbying is expected in the coming days, including a rally at 5 p.m. today in front of the Capitol by education funding advocates.



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July 2004 

Homes for sale: Stunning view, 4 bdrms., 3 baths, master suite,hardwood-laminate floors, new appliances $369,000; Three-level family home, apt. 3 bdrms., 2 kitchens, 13/4 baths, $232,000.


July 1974

    Lee Salisbury, speech and theater arts professor at the University of Alaska, will be drama instructor for grades 7-12 at the Regional Fine Arts Camp. The camp is sponsored by the Southeast Alaska Regional Arts Council and is held on the Sheldon Jackson College campus. Jim Hope is camp director.


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