An ice jam packed with boardwalks, docks, staircases and other debris in the Kenai River made it to Stewart's Landing on Sunday afternoon. The jam has been jostling its way downstream since Jan. 25, causing flooding along the way.
Photo courtesy of David Wartinbe
Gov. Sarah Palin assured local officials Sunday morning in Kenai that she believes it is government’s role to assist in rebuilding public and private structures damaged or destroyed by moving ice jams along the Kenai River.
Stairs, docks, boardwalks and more were ripped from their moorings by a huge ice jam over the past week. The jam currently is just above Kenai about 13 miles from the river’s mouth.
Sunday morning, Palin toured the damage by helicopter during a 40-minute flight that headed downriver from Sterling. With her was Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams.
“The hand of Mother Nature is certainly more powerful than anything man is building,” she said upon returning to Kenai Municipal Airport. “Government’s role, though, in something like this, is to step in and help rebuild.”
Palin said much of the damage, especially in Soldotna, was to public structures built by public investment.
“On behalf of different arms of government, we need to get in there and repair,” she said.
When it comes to private losses, Palin said the government needed to get out of the way.
“We need to allow the permits to go through expediently and make sure that rebuilding is possible,” she said.
Getting a first-hand look at the damage gave her a clear perspective that would help when making decisions about government assistance, Palin commented.
“People need to be able to trust that we have seen it, that we’ve understood the impact of Mother Nature’s hand in this,” she said.
Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey said he would sign a formal citywide declaration of disaster on Monday, noting that assessments so far put city damage costs at between $1.25 million and $2 million. He also said that some areas are still under ice and more damage may be hidden.
“A good deal of what was the original Soldotna Creek Park is gone,” he said.
Also gone are about a third of a recently completed state bank-stabilization project, and 22 of 24 staircases at Centennial Park.
Over the years, stairs and docks have been upgraded, as from welded joints to bolted connections that at least made them removable, Carey noted. The current disaster argues for replacement with another upgrade.
“What we need is a comprehensive program so that everything is retractable, so that we can actually pull it out (of the river),” he said. “That’s what we are really hoping the state can assist us with, so that we can at least get stairways back in place. Obviously, we can’t do the walkways, but we must have access to the river.”
Carey said he believed a large number of residents would be in need of permits in order to affect there own repairs.
During a preflight briefing, Williams told Palin that from the borough’s perspective, damage could top $5 million. The infrastructure along the river has been 20 or more years in the making.
“Now, of course, it’s all gone,” he told Palin.
“The borough is in a peculiar situation,” Williams said. “While we didn’t own a lot of it, we were responsible for the installation of a lot of it.”
Gov. Sarah Palin meets with borough Mayor John Williams, left, and Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey on Sunday morning before flying over the Kenai River to view damage done by moving ice.
Photo by Hal Spence
Some of what the borough does own isn’t insured, he said, because it was not named specifically on borough policies. Repair costs would likely have to come out of borough pockets, he said.
“The economic factors are also of major concern,” the mayor told Palin. “A great deal of the borough’s revenues and the city’s revenues occurs during the summer months when the fishing takes place.” If people can’t reach the river, local economies would have “major economic problems,” he said.
Borough Emergency Management Coordinator Scott Walden and others told Palin it would be extremely important, once the ice is gone, to determine exactly what the debris field consists of and how expansive it might be.
Bill Popp, assistant to the mayor, has said clearing debris would be a major focus of planning by the various governments and agencies, and that talks had already begun. Actual work is probably going to have to wait for breakup, however.
“We need to start all working together to come up with strategies and game plans to respond to this situation, ... and figure out how we’re going to get it out of there so we don’t have any issues of safety for navigation.”
Popp said it is premature at this point to determine if the borough would declare a disaster of its own. That will depend on how much of the damage is to public (borough) facilities. Flood damage to roads, as opposed to docks and staircases, is the more likely focus for the borough, he said.
Walden said Soldotna’s declaration would be forwarded to the borough. The borough would then send it on to the state, along with its own declaration if necessary.
The borough has two weeks from the time the incident is declared to be over to file a disaster declaration, Walden said. That would likely be after the ice jam clears the river’s mouth. Once declared at the state level, the municipalities would have from six to 18 months to add emerging damages to a declaration, he said.
It would be up to Palin’s disaster cabinet working with the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to decide if the state should seek a declaration request from the federal government.
Assuming a federal declaration, federal money would then become available for disaster relief of some sort. But even if the federal request were denied, the state could still step in and help financially.
“We have contingency funds, even in the governor’s office, the administration has contingency funds to help take care of things like this,” Palin said.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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