Hazard a plan

Natural disaster loss mitigation strategy readied

Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2004

When the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly last week voted unanimously to adopt an All-Hazard Mitigation Plan, it began fulfilling a state and federal mandate to reduce the vulnerability of peninsula communities to losses from natural disasters.

The plan had three primary goals: protection, prevention and education, says an executive summary in the plan document. Copies of the plan are available through the borough.

Reducing the dangers inherent in natural events including floods, wildfires, earthquakes, weather and tsunamis and seiches (occasional and sudden oscillation of the water of a lake, bay, estuary, etc., producing fluctuations in the water level) is a prime objective of the plan.

"It's been a ton of work," said David Gibbs, borough emergency manager. "We hired two part-time temporary employees to help do it."

While some communities have done little more than adapt "canned" state plans, he said, the Kenai Peninsula Borough took a broader approach, one which relied on its experience with natural disasters, including the flooding experienced in 2002.

"I'm actually quite proud of this product," Gibbs said. "Ours was done from scratch."

The plan calls for developing mitigation strategies to assist people and communities to prepare for, respond to and recover from hazard events, thus modifying their effects.

Susceptibility to damage also could be reduced by avoiding hazardous, uneconomic and unwise development in known hazard areas, the plan says. It calls for strategies that would "protect the natural and beneficial values of floodplains, coastal areas and water resources," and to reduce losses by incorporating hazard assessment and mitigation into land use and development decisions.

Several steps already are in progress. For instance, borough and state officials are working on a boroughwide flood hazard risk assessment.

At the Oct. 26 assembly meeting, members approved a memorandum from Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge adding language to the flood risk assessment that would focus grant-seeking efforts and mitigation strategies on the Homer bench, a zone beneath a tall bluff overlooking Kachemak Bay that presents a risk of catastrophic slope failures in developing areas.

Concerning flooding, the all-hazard plan also proposes, among other things, enhancing floodplain permit compliance, improving floodplain mapping, reviewing and revising floodplain development standards, researching alternative floodplain management strategies, and evaluating borough-maintained roads for floodplain hazards and potential flood reduction projects. Studies in some of those areas already are under way.

Other flood-related ideas include enhancing existing emergency preparedness practices and educating the public on flood hazard and floodplain development.

Concerning wildfires, the plan sets four goals for the next five years:

Improving fire prevention and protection through cooperative efforts with state and federal agencies;

Reducing hazardous fuels by promoting defensible space on 17,550 parcels of private land containing structures, clearing fire fuel from 97,000 acres of the wild land-urban interface, as well as adjacent to 641 miles of power lines and along 22 miles of highway-road evacuation routes;

Restoring forest health and desired ecosystems on about 199,000 acres through combined efforts of local, state and federal agencies; and

Promoting community assistance through collaborative development of 20 community wildfire protection plans under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003.

The Cook Inlet region and the Kenai Peninsula sit atop an active earthquake zone, making temblors of particular interest when it comes to mitigating dangers and destruction.

The all-hazard plan includes a call for retrofitting critical borough facilities as funding allows, encouraging residents to reduce earthquake hazards around their homes and businesses, encouraging residents to purchase earthquake insurance, performing earthquake mapping of the borough to improve analysis of earthquake hazards and conducting mock emergency drills, among other things.

Severe, miserable weather is no stranger to the peninsula, and the plan takes notice. It proposes to increase public awareness of severe winter storm mitigation efforts and emergency response the functions of such agencies as the National Weather Service and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, among others. It also would continue enhancing weather monitoring and warning systems, expanding local weather monitoring programs and efforts to minimize storm damage.

The plan also calls for identifying vulnerabilities to and increasing public awareness of tsunamis and seiches and enhancing tsunami-warning systems.

Some 51,000 people live within the borough and its economy depends on a variety of resources and industries that are spread out across its 24,000 square miles. Its size and "substantial regional variations" in climate and geography contribute to its vulnerability to natural hazards, according to the executive summary.

"While it is not possible to prevent natural disasters from occurring, it is feasible to minimize their impact to life and property with well-defined comprehensive hazard mitigation planning," the plan says.

Contributing their own plans to the overall all-hazard plan were five of the borough's six incorporated cities, including Homer, Kachemak City, Kenai, Seward and Soldotna. Seldovia has not yet moved to create a plan. Port Graham has included its flood mitigation plan. Also included in the document is the Interagency All Lands-All Hands (Wildfire) Action Plan developed by an interagency coordinating committee that includes the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

The mitigation strategies and action items outlined in the document were not prioritized. An interdepartmental steering committee will be established for that purpose that will include an assembly member and director-level representatives from key borough departments, including the mayor's office and the school district. The group will use a cost-benefit approach to prioritizing projects, budgeting resources and assigning implementation and project administration responsibilities, the plan said.

The plan-development project was done with the help of a $50,000 grant received by the Office of Emergency Management in 2003 from the Alaska Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. The borough had a deadline of Nov. 4 for developing a plan that would meet Federal Emergency Management Agency approval.

In a memo to the assembly in September, Gibbs noted the plan had two purposes: to be "a viable tool" with which to reduce threats of damage and loss faced by communities, and to become the necessary prerequisite for receiving future state and federal hazard mitigation funding.

Reached Tuesday, Gibbs said the genesis of the all-hazard plan project came in the wake of the 2002 flooding when the borough began looking at upgrading its flood mitigation plan. That opened the door to broadening the scope of work to create the kind of all-hazard plan required by FEMA for access to certain emergency management funding.

The plan is not yet complete, though it is enough to hand to FEMA for approval. Gibbs said the borough only had funding enough to identify and create mitigation strategies for the five types of hazards listed above.

Still to be developed and added to the plan are in-depth sections dealing with the threats from volcanoes, as well as those from technological hazards, such as interruptions to computer systems, Gibbs said. There may eventually be a separate section dealing with threats of terrorism.

The work now also will involve prioritizing the hazards and identifying projects that could be eligible for grants, he said.

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