Town asks for state relief in lieu of disaster

Posted: Friday, August 09, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Yakutat residents are asking for state help to stave off what could be an economic disaster caused by the advance of the Hubbard Glacier.

Last month, the glacier pinched off the entrance to Russell Fiord and turned it into a lake that has risen more than 52 feet.

City and borough officials fear that the newly formed Russell Lake will eventually spill over and flood valuable fishing habitat, causing billions of dollars in damages and economic losses.

Yakutat Mayor Tom Maloney has asked Gov. Tony Knowles to begin planning a state response to the flooding before it happens.

''The looming negative impact on residents of Yakutat is enormous and time is short,'' Maloney said.

Maloney has asked for assistance from the state departments of Transportation and Public Facilities, Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game.

Last week, the borough assembly passed a resolution declaring an emergency disaster.

Experts can't predict whether the glacier dam will hold this time or when the lake could spill into the nearby Situk River basin located east of the town in the Yakutat Forelands. If the water level rises 131 feet, it will spill out of the south end of the lake.

The lake has been rising between six to 10 inches per day since the glacier closed it off last month, said Jacqueline Lott, a spokeswoman with the National Park Service. Though the National Park Service won't estimate when it could overflow, borough officials say it could be as early as November.

Local officials also fear that flooding in the Yakutat Forelands could reach the airport and force some evacuations, said borough manager Don Braun.

A study is underway to determine the extent of possible flooding if Russell Lake spills out into the forelands, said Forest Service Ranger Tricia O'Conner.

State Adjutant General Phil Oates, who heads the Disaster Policy Cabinet, plans to travel to Yakutat as early as next week to assess the situation, said spokeswoman Kerre Fisher.

Hubbard Glacier, located about 35 miles north of Yakutat, blocked the entrance to Russell Fiord for more than four months in 1986 before an ice dam broke and water flushed into Disenchantment Bay.

But local officials are alarmed by this most recent closure since it has been formed by a seemingly sturdy rock moraine pushed up in the glacier's path.

Scientists expect that the glacier will eventually close off the fjord permanently. When that happens, its expected that the overflowing lake will significantly widen the Situk River.

In the long run, that could be good news for local fishermen. But in the immediate future fish would be swept away in debris and wouldn't return for a few years.

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