Knowles declares disasters

Posted: Thursday, November 07, 2002

Gov. Tony Knowles has issued a state disaster declaration in the wake of the recent flooding on the Kenai Peninsula and has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to evaluate the area for a federal presidential disaster declaration.

A declaration of disaster by President George W. Bush would open the door to federal emergency response funds.

Knowles said Wednesday he was sending the Legislature a $20 million finance plan for dealing with roads and structures damaged by the flooding rivers and heavy rains that swept across the peninsula late last month. That was the current estimated cost to state agencies, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, its cities and communities and utility companies, Knowles said, adding the estimate could rise.

Meanwhile, the impact of continuing rain led the National Weather Service to issue another flood warning Wednesday afternoon for the Kenai River in the Kenai Keys area that is to stay in effect through 4 p.m. today. The river was expected to reach minor flood stage at around 2 p.m. Wednesday as moderate rainfall in the Killey River basin added to the Kenai River flow. The crest of about 12.5 feet was expected Wednesday evening. The Kenai River level was expected to recede through this morning before rising again as a broad crest comes in from the upper Kenai River. That crest is not expected to reach flood stage, however.

A flood warning means flooding is imminent or is occurring and residents in flood-prone area are advised to take precautions.

Knowles issued a second state disaster declaration Wednesday in response to the massive magnitude 7.9 earthquake centered south of Fairbanks early Sunday afternoon, causing damage to roads, highways, rural homes, drinking water systems, fuel storage systems and forcing a shutdown of the trans-Alaska pipeline for several days.

He has asked the president to declare a federal disaster with regard to the earthquake, too, seeking emergency disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Manage-ment Agency and the Federal Highway Administration emergency relief funds.

"Hopefully we will get expedited action from the federal government as we move to meet these urgent community needs," the governor said.

In a third action, Knowles added the city of Shishmaref to the Northwest Arctic Borough State Disaster Declaration issued Oct. 23 that covered Kotzebue and Kivalina. The governor wants to reimburse Shishmaref for expenses it incurred in responding to a storm that caused erosion along its seafront.

The governor acted following recommendations from his Dis-aster Policy Cabinet, which met Wednesday morning to consider ramifications and responses to the natural disasters.

At his press conference Wednesday afternoon, Knowles said state residents were fortunate that most of the damage from the flooding and quake was confined to roads and structures. Only one minor injury was reported from the quake, but the damage to property was significant, he said.

He praised local and state employees and residents of the impacted areas for their responses to the natural disasters.

Storm fronts that brought two days of saturating rain on Oct. 23 and 24 and dumped three to 15 inches across the peninsula caused rivers and streams to flood leading to widespread damage, school closures and washed out roads.

Jan Henry, director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, said the borough and representatives of the Alaska Division of Emergency Services conducted a preliminary assessment of flood damage on the peninsula last week. The three-day inspection done Thursday, Friday and Saturday was not detailed, but provided information to the Division of Emergency Services to be considered by the Disaster Policy Cabinet.

Henry said the "very preliminary" review estimated the damage to borough roads and bridges, to Homer Electric Association equipment and to the cities of Homer and Seward at $1.68 million. That figure did not include damage to private property, nor the cost of damage and repair to state roads and facilities. It also did not include the associated costs of response by state agencies.

Rain continued to pound the Kenai Peninsula this week, the heaviest concentration coming on the lower peninsula where better than an inch and a half of rain fell in the 48 hours between early Monday morning and early Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

While nowhere near the record pace of rainfall suffered during the storm on Oct. 23 and 24, this week's rain did fall on already saturated ground. The continuing wet weather has some residents facing water damages to homes, wells and septic systems.

In Homer this week the arrival of extremely high tides compounded the effect of the wet weather.

"I didn't think the laws of physics would allow the tide to come up that high," said Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer. "It was above 26 feet."

The theoretical highest tide, he said, was 23.5 feet. Meyer attributed the unusually high water level to an expected high tide driven by high winds and affected by low barometric pressure. The winds were out of the east, he said.

"It created quite a bit of damage on the east side of the Homer Spit," he said. "The Spit Bike Trail was damaged, some pavement lost and there was some erosion of the embankment."

The Homer Fishing Hole took a big hit as waves eroded the surface of surrounding storm berms.

In town, a local contractor working for the state Department of Transportation continued repair work to the Homer Slough Bridge. Beluga Lake, which the bridge dams, was higher than most could remember as a result of the weeks of heavy rain, and part of the repair work included clearing drain channels under the bridge to allow some water to escape to sea.

Meyer said this week's rain was not as intense as that of late October, but the city continues to respond to drainage and erosion problems throughout the community.

There is concern that flooding may have contaminated drinking water wells. Henry said well test kits have been shipped to Homer and are available to people through the Homer Volunteer Fire Depart-ment. Residents are responsible for conducting the sampling test and getting the samples to Northern Test Lab in Soldotna.

Central peninsula residents may pick up the test kits from the lab directly. The borough will pay for the cost of the lab work, Henry said.

Henry said the central peninsula is fairing fairly well and that recent rain has been relatively light. But across the peninsula in Seward, rainfall continues to cause problems, he said.

"There's been some recurring flooding in the Seward area," he said. "They just can't seem to get a break over there from the rain."

The latest weather forecasts indicate that Southcentral Alaska may be in for a break over the next week as dryer and colder conditions are expected to prevail.

"We may start seeing a change in the weather with rain ending tonight (Wednesday) and sunny skies Thursday," said Elliot Frasier, a weather service specialist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

Today, temperatures are expected to reach into the 40s with northeast winds hitting 10 to 20 mph. Friday will be sunny and relatively warm, too, but by Saturday, temperatures are expected to dip into the 30s in the daytime and into the teens and low 20s at night. Those conditions are expected to continue through Monday.

While the weather pattern is becoming dryer and colder, it is still possible that Southcentral could be hit with a warm southerly flow of air again next week, which could bring more precipitation, Lindsey said.

Wednesday afternoon's Kenai River flood warning was to remain in effect through 4 p.m. today, but other rivers remain flood-warning free.

"We have nothing out (warnings) for the lower peninsula," said Scott Lindsey, senior hydrologist with the Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center.

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