Hammering rainfall throughout much of Wednesday and early Thursday morning made driving the Sterling Highway an adventure in automotive aquatics, as swales in the pavement filled with rivers of wet and what passed for visibility often vaporized in the spray from other vehicles.
The damp weather that has painted most of October gave up any pretense of early fall tranquility late Tuesday as high winds and a torrential downpour let loose over the Kenai Peninsula. The stormy weather continued through Wednesday and into Thursday.
Normally quiescent rivers and creeks quickly breached their banks, especially on the lower peninsula, washing out roads and bridges, stranding motorists and forcing the evacuation of residents in low-lying areas at the Anchor River, according to information from the Alaska State Troopers and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management.
Cut in three places, the Sterling Highway was closed by Alaska State Troopers and won't be open before Saturday, if then, troopers said. It could be longer, depending on subsequent rain during the weekend.
The National Weather Service issued flood warnings and flood watches that will stay in effect through today and into the weekend in some places for peninsula waterways from the Kenai River in Cooper Landing to the Anchor River, from Fritz Creek east of Homer to the Salmon River at Seward.
In the central peninsula, flood warnings were issued for the Kenai Lake, Cooper Landing and the Kenai River areas. A flood warning for Seward also was issued. A warning means flooding is imminent.
More heavy rain was expected Thursday night, and showers were expected to continue on and off through the weekend, according to the weather service.
Department of Transportation officials said it could take at least 36 to 48 hours to repair bridge damage at Deep Creek. Damage at Stariski Creek and Black Water Bend south of Anchor Point had yet to be assessed by early evening Thursday.
The weather service said the steady rain that began Tuesday grew heaviest Wednesday, dumping about 2.5 inches in the Homer-Anchor Point area from noon to midnight Wednesday. Rain continued into Thursday morning. From 4 to 6 inches fell in the region between Tuesday and mid-day Thursday, the weather service said.
"That's maybe a once-in-50-years event," said Ben Balk, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. Homer and Anchor Point normally receive about 3.25 inches in October, Balk said.
Meteorologist John Papineau said similarly heavy rainfall pelted the central peninsula as well. Some 2.09 inches fell in Kenai during the 48 hours between 4 p.m. Tuesday and 4 p.m. Thursday, according to gauge readings at the Kenai Airport, he said.
Meanwhile, 2.81 inches fell during the same period at Cooper Landing.
At Seward, 5.21 inches fell between 4 p.m. Tuesday and 4 p.m. Thursday. Seward averages 9.4 inches of rain in October, Papineau said, but in two days better than half that amount hit the ground causing flooding in the Salmon River. Papineau said there were reports of smaller roads being closed, but the Seward Highway was not closed.
Troopers evacuated residents along the Anchor River Beach Road on Thursday morning because of flooding. Bonnie Golden, public information officer for the Office of Emergency Management said the Anchor Point flooding danger was critical in some areas.
"The lower areas are being cleared," she said, adding that a shelter was being established at Chapman Elementary School where classes were canceled Thursday. "There is some concern there for the (school's) septic system. If necessary, the Anchor Point Senior Center will be used as a secondary shelter," Golden said.
Southbound traffic passes a section of the Sterling Highway undercut by water in Kasilof Thursday afternoon.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Schools also were closed in Voznesenka and Kachemak Selo, Golden said. Other area schools remained open.
The Sterling Highway washed out at three locations south of Ninilchik and was closed to traffic by Thursday morning.
Flooding submerged the highway at Black Water Bend a few miles south of Anchor Point, forcing closure of the road between Mile 160 and Mile 164, according to troopers.
More flooding cut the highway at Stariski Creek where water rose over a bridge and surrounded nearby trees. Further north at Deep Creek near Ninilchik, water was rapidly eroding the embankment at the bridge.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley was on the highway Thursday morning to see the damage first hand. He could get no further south by road than Deep Creek where some 15 feet of embankment had fallen away and a couple of damaged cars had been abandoned, he said.
Blacktop on about 10 feet of the bridge fell away and those cars had been damaged when they hit the broken pavement, according to Trooper Bryan Barlow who responded to the accident early Thursday. The cars were later towed from the scene.
Also at Deep Creek, Alaska Communications Systems telephone repair crews used a helicopter to string a new cable across the swollen creek, according to reports.
The bridge leading to Ninilchik Village succumbed to flooding on Thursday.
Ninilchik's Oil Well Road had washed out at Mile 4 and several other spots north of that, Bagley reported.
In Ninilchik Village, residents said they'd never seen anything like the flood waters coursing through their town.
"This is incredible," David Bradley said. "How many times in our lifetimes are we going to see the Ninilchik River like this?"
Nick Cooper, a lifelong Ninilchik resident, said he'd never seen it this bad.
Resident Randy Harvey, who has lived in Ninilchik five years, worried about what the flooding would do to future fish runs.
"It's going to decimate the fisheries population in five years," he predicted.
The bridge on the south end of the North Fork Road was out, effectively closing that road, and the access road into Nikolaevsk also was closed, according to trooper information.
"Everyone is working, days off or not," Trooper Sgt. Jim Hibpshman, head of the Homer post, said early Thursday afternoon.
Of prime concern, Hibpshman said, was the Sterling Highway just below the Anchor River Inn in Anchor Point. There, the Anchor River passes beneath the roadway through four large culverts. Filled to capacity, the culverts were unable to handle the bulk of the water rushing down the river. A virtual lake was forming behind the road embankment.
"If that breaks and opens the road, a wall of water will go down there (along the river valley to Cook Inlet)," Hibpshman said. "That's our biggest concern right now."
Troopers worked to evacuate residents below the accidental dam. They warned a camper near the river to get out. Eventually, troopers ordered state road crews working on the nearby Old Sterling Highway to higher ground.
"We moved them out of harm's way," Hibpshman said.
A woman became stranded by rising water on the Anchor River Beach Road near the mouth of the Anchor River early Thursday and had to climb atop her car. Hibpshman said her cell phone had worked just well enough to let them know where she was.
Troopers were on their way, but learned another driver had successfully towed the car and the woman to safety. Hibpshman did not know the woman's name or that of the Good Samaritan.
Stan Harrington, who owns a tackle shop at the edge of the Anchor River Campground, said water from the river had flooded his parking lot.
"It's the worst I've seen since I was a kid and definitely the worst it's been in the last 20 years since the last time we had a fall flood," he said at around 4 p.m. Thursday. "It's dropped down nicely about a foot and a half. She's running pretty smooth now."
Elsewhere, East End Road east of Homer was closed for hours Thursday between Spencer Drive and its intersection with Kachemak Drive roughly at Mile 3.7 East End Road. Not all of that was flooded, but East End was washed out at Bear Creek a couple of miles from downtown Homer.
Unfortunately for residents living further out East End Road the normal detour route, Kachemak Drive, which runs from the base of the Homer Spit to its intersection with East End Road, also was closed due to flooding near Northern Enterprises Boat Yard.
Highway repair crews had reopened both routes by Thursday afternoon, said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl.
However, Robl said, East End Road was down to one-lane traffic at Fritz Creek where the road was beginning to wash away.
Faith Lutheran Church in Homer opened as a shelter Wednesday for folks cut off from their homes.
Local emergency medical technicians were working during the rain-spawned havoc, Hibpshman said.
Vital medications were flown to specific people in Nikolaevsk and Anchor Point, he said.
Hibpshman also said officials had only just returned from a flight over the bluff above Homer checking whether the rainfall had caused any mudslides or left cliffs unstable. He said there no signs of slides.
Troopers were getting calls from residents who said they had to drive to Anchorage.
"That's just not physically possible right now," Hibpshman said.
He said Alaska Department of Transportation officials were telling him late Thursday afternoon that it could be at least two days before the Sterling Highway is open from Homer to Soldotna.
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