Storms, damage taking costly toll

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2000

Shoveling driveways is one thing. Clearing avalanches takes snow removal to an even larger dimension. And dealing with this winter's weather conditions has brought Alaska to the attention of President Clinton.

George Church, Kenai Penin-sula superintendent for Alaska's Department of Transportation, said his area's road maintenance tab is in the neighborhood of $36,820 and included additional labor support from Soldotna, Seward and Quartz Creek.

Approximately $19,618 went to personnel costs. A team of eight people worked a week to clear away avalanches that fell almost nightly. The remaining $17,201 covered equipment costs, including a helicopter used for bombing potential slides.

"The dollar signs don't look like all that much," said Church, "But you have to look at what it also takes to catch up on highway maintenance after focusing on avalanche removal."

The $36,820 doesn't include catch-up expenses.

Being in the thick of things, DOT operators put themselves at personal risk. Church and several other operators were stranded at the Hope cutoff when slides on either side forced them to hunker down where they were, spending the night sleeping in insulated overalls on a floor.

"We knew the slides would come down," said Church. "We just wondered when. It was pretty exciting."

Avalanches were just one of the many ways the state has been affected by this winter's weather.

"It's part of the mind-set that it's not just an avalanche event," said John Alcantra, emergency management coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. "It was really a severe winter storm event."

On Feb. 3, Borough Mayor Dale Bagley signed a Kenai Peninsula Borough disaster declaration after receipt of a disaster declaration from the city of Seward.

On Feb. 8, Gov. Tony Knowles amended his disaster emergency declaration of a few days earlier by including the Kenai Peninsula Borough as well as other areas suffering significant impacts.

In a letter to President Clinton on Feb. 11, Gov. Knowles summed up conditions rocking the state and officially requested the president "declare a major disaster for the State of Alaska as a result of high impact weather events including rain with hurricane force winds, record snowfall, ice storms, flooding and unprecedented avalanche activity."

According to Alcantra, statewide damages are expected to exceed $10 million. Damage estimates inside the borough are just a little short of $2 million.

"Basically, we expect a presidential declaration as early as next week and as late as the end of next week," he said.

Once that is done, teams from the Federal Emergency Manage-ment Agency and the state of Alaska will visit the borough to determine specific costs.

"We haven't had a presidential disaster declaration in the state of Alaska since the Big Lake-Millers Reach fire in June 1996," said Alcantra.

In 1995, the total disaster funds for damages caused by flooding in the state of Alaska was $8.5 million.

"With this extreme winter storm weather, we're looking at the cost being more significant than that," Alcantra predicted. "It could possibly double the number of 1995."

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