Just when it looked like it was time to start building an ark, the foul weather that pounded the Kenai Peninsula beginning late Tuesday finally lightened up Thursday, giving peninsula residents and work crews a chance to dry off and repair the damage.
Rain- and wind-induced mayhem ensued across the peninsula due to the storm. Rivers and creeks swelled and surged out of their banks, flooding roads, damaging houses and washing out several bridges -- including Deep Creek bridge and the bridges into Ninilchik and Nikolaevsk villages -- effectively cutting off access to some communities.
The damage was extensive enough for Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley to declare an emergency disaster in the southern and eastern emergency zones of the borough. Bagley signed a declaration to this effect at 4:40 p.m. Friday. In it, he asked the governor and state to declare the borough a disaster emergency area.
Gov. Tony Knowles visited the peninsula Friday to meet with Bagley and survey the situation firsthand.
"He was pretty impressed by the damage the rain has done and how much damage was done to Deep Creek bridge," Bagley said. "That bridge has been there for 40 years, and it always handled the rain until this time. The state took some big hits with Deep Creek and the bridges into Ninilchik village as well as Nikolaevsk. Those are state bridges. ... I've got a feeling the state's going to proclaim a state disaster, so we'll wait and see."
State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities crews, borough road crews, city crews and private roads contractors have been working steadily since the storm let up to open closed roads and create access to cut-off areas.
As of Saturday, the Sterling Highway was open between Anchor Point and Homer and the Old Sterling Highway was open as well. In Homer, East End Road was open from Kachemak Drive east but was still closed from Spencer Drive to Kachemak Drive. The damage to Fritz Creek bridge had been repaired and Stariski Creek bridge had been opened to one-lane local traffic.
North Fork Road to the Englebrettsen Bridge remained closed Saturday, as did the road to Nikolaevsk, although residents did install a foot bridge in the gap left by the washed-out bridge.
The Sterling Highway at the Deep Creek bridge remained closed Saturday and will require the greatest amount of work to repair. A 50-foot gap in the roadway up to the abutment was eroded and will have to be repaired.
According to Ed Oberts, assistant to the borough mayor, a business in Anchorage was busy making a culvert for the bridge Saturday. Even a temporary fix is not expected to be opened before tonight at the earliest.
For the people stranded on either side of Deep Creek, Era Aviation will continue to provide additional flights between Homer and Kenai through today at least, said Lisa Howard, administrative assistant of Paul Landis, senior vice president of Era Aviation.
A flight from Homer to Kenai will leave at 11:05 a.m. and another flight will leave Kenai for Homer at 6:05 p.m. It has not yet been announced whether the additional flights will be offered Monday. The fare for the flights between Kenai and Homer is $30, one way.
Several borough bridges and roads were washed out in the storm, the worst of which being Oilwell Road, Bagley said.
"From the borough's perspective, Oilwell is going to be the big problem," he said. "There are 12 to 15 people out there. We need to get that road fixed and get people out there. Nobody's in any danger out there, but we do need to get the road back in shape."
Borough road crews were making progress Saturday on creating temporary access across the first washout on Oilwell, Oberts said. An adequately-sized culvert was located to use for the temporary crossing, which is expected to be completed by Monday. A permanent fix in that spot will take longer since the borough plans to upgrade the existing culvert to a larger, flat-bottomed culvert which is more conducive to fish passage before repairing the road. Work is under way on the other side of the washout as well.
John Densmore, Andy Matthews and Ray DeMoss unload armor rock at the bridge Friday. Crews are trucking the material from Girdwood to the north and Homer to the south.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"We've had a number of calls from the Caribou Hills" Oberts said. "Residents are making efforts on their own and there's a contractor with at Cat up their working to make roads passable on that side. ... It sounds like they're working together to make sure everything is taken care of."
In Homer, road access within the city has been restored.
"We had some fairly substantial problems here on Tuesday evening with the rain, primarily because it's been raining so long down here," said Homer City Manager Ron Drathman on Friday. "Right now we're ahead of it. All the streets in the city are open."
City crews took preventative measures by widening drainage ditches and storm water systems when repairing roads to ensure flooding wouldn't happen again if heavy rains returned over the weekend.
"The public works crew was working darn near 24 hours straight diverting and moving water," Drathman said. "... We've got some barricades by some new, really impressive potholes, but without hesitation I would say we've got the best public works crew in the state."
Flooding was not a problem within Seward like it was in Homer, but outlying Seward areas were hit by overflowing waterways.
"A few subdivisions flooded where creeks have changed their course," said Seward City Manager Scott Janke on Friday. "... All that standing water out there concerns me because of the wells and septic systems out there."
Salmon Creek partly diverted its course into the White Sawmills Subdivision outside Seward, which forced residents to temporarily evacuate their homes.
"We drove through there Wednesday afternoon," Oberts said. "... There was a lot of water in the subdivision. We drove down one of the roads and it was like driving through a lake."
A contractor was working Saturday to divert the creek back into its channel, Oberts said.
Contingency plans were made Friday to get food and supplies to many cut-off areas, but no community should be isolated past the weekend so these measures will most likely not be needed, Oberts said.
In Nikolaevsk, the foot bridge allows residents access to food and supplies. An airstrip in Caribou Hills could be used to fly in supplies to residents there, Oberts said. In Ninilchik, residents left isolated by a washout of Brody Road were using ropes to send food and supplies back and forth.
"They're not totally cut off," Bagley said. "If we were looking at two to three weeks (of isolation) it would be more serious, but I think we're looking at day or two for most of these areas."
Roads weren't the only thing knocked out during the storm. The high winds and rain knocked out utility service to several areas of the borough, as well.
Roughly 250 Alaska Communications System customers immediately south of Deep Creek were affected by a phone outage Thursday. Most of them had service by 4:30 that afternoon, after a new cable was strung across the creek using a helicopter. ACS used a crew of 12 people and had to rent the helicopter.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, Gov. Tony Knowles and Gen. Phillip Oates look at photos of flood damage projected from a computer at the borough's emergency center in Soldotna.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"They have been working around the clock," said Mary Ann Pease, ACS vice president. "This group did an incredible job. ... It's kind of the expensive side of our network. The cost is just astronomical. ACS does not get reimbursed by other companies for the work."
Homer Electric Association reported scattered power outages beginning about 4 a.m. Friday throughout its system, especially in the Homer area.
"It was mostly due to the high winds in the area," said Joe Gallagher, public relations and member service coordinator for HEA.
"The fact that we had torrential rains does make the ground unstable, however, and that does make the trees more likely to topple over."
HEA work crews restored power to the central peninsula area Friday morning and to the rest of the peninsula from Homer to Sterling and in Nikolaevsk by about 9:15 Friday night, Gallagher said.
"Because the roads have fragmented and some areas are islanded we have had to take unusual steps to make sure we have the right people in the right spot and that is the use of helicopters," Gallagher said Friday.
As of Saturday, the only area left without power was between Halibut Cove and the McDonald Spit area on the south side of Kachemak Bay. According to Gallagher, two crews flew to the area in a helicopter Saturday morning and were expected to have power restored by the end of the day.
The school district was minimally affected by flooding.
The Nikolaevsk and Kachemak Selo schools were closed Friday due to road washouts. Kachemak Selo is scheduled to reopen at a delayed start time of 10 a.m. Monday, but Nikolaevsk is not, since many staff members will not be able to get to the school until the road is repaired, borough school district Superintendent Donna Peterson said Friday. A high school graduation qualifying exam scheduled to be proctored Monday at the Nikolaevsk school still will be given, Peterson said. A staff member who lives in the village will proctor the test at the school.
In Ninilchik, Peterson estimated there are about 50 students on the south side of the washed-out Deep Creek bridge who won't make it to school Monday, but the school will be open. A qualifying exam is scheduled to be proctored Monday in Ninilchik as well, but none of the stranded 50 students are scheduled to take it then.
The American Red Cross has scaled back its response efforts in the aftermath of the storm. It closed its three emergency shelters in Seward, Homer and Anchor Point on Friday, because they were no longer needed.
"The Red Cross is not leaving that area, what we're doing is redirecting our resources to damage assessment and recovery efforts," said Annette Hakkinen, program manager for the Kenai Peninsula Red Cross. "There isn't a need for (shelters), but if anything should come up to where some things worsen, we will go right back in and set those shelters up."
A Red Cross emergency response vehicle is stationed in Homer, which can feed people, distribute cleanup kits and be a base of operations in the southern peninsula. The state's other ERV stopped in Seward on Saturday before continuing to Ninilchik.
"If there's any workers on the road we can give them some snacks, and if we see any homes that might need help we can knock on their door and see that they're OK," Hakkinen said.
Damage assessment for the borough will begin in earnest Tuesday, when four workers from the Alaska Division of Emergency Services are scheduled to arrive, Oberts said.
Estimates have not been calculated at this time for damages to personal property, borough or state roads.
At this point, the borough's main focus is repairing roads and getting people out of the areas where bridges are being fixed," Bagley said.
"The only thing that's going to really hurt us is if we get the same type of weather that caused all this is massive rain," he said.
Clarion reporter Matt Tunseth contributed to this story.
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