Flooding threatens peninsula

Rain, melting snow overflows southern peninsula streams

Posted: Thursday, November 22, 2007

Warmer temperatures may be a nice break from wintry snow and ice, but the rain and resulting snowmelt have brought a small stream flood advisory for areas of the state, including the southern Kenai Peninsula.

Issued by the National Weather Service at 5 a.m. Wednesday, affected streams include the Anchor River.

At 3 a.m., the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management received calls from concerned residents along the Anchor River's north fork.

Les Mofford, the borough's road inspector in Homer, also was alerted during the night about problems with culverts on streets off East End Road. Specifically, Mofford reported damage to Fernwood and Hill Street. With the rain tapering off Wednesday morning, Mofford was able to dispatch crews to clear culverts and make repairs. They also were sanding icy backstreets.

"After the rain we've had, culverts are overflowing and running across the road. It's almost to flood stage," Mofford said.

Glen Szymoniak, assistant superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, was notified by OEM at 3 a.m. of possible flooding. He passed those concerns along to Laidlaw Transit, operator of school buses for the district.

Dave Etzwiler of Laidlaw in Homer said bus drivers experienced no problems with morning routes, "but I don't know about this afternoon."

With an eye on the rising Anchor River, especially near Black Water Bend Espresso where the river passes near the Sterling Highway, Etziler said an alternative plan was to use the Old Sterling Highway.

"If they close the main road, we can still go around," he said.

Kevin Jones, with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in Homer, said attention Wednesday morning was on repairing potholes that have multiplied with the wet conditions.

"We're also keeping a real close eye on water levels," he said, "If the rain continues there's definitely a potential there for issues. ... Right now, we have no issues as far as flooding is concerned."

Closure of the Sterling Highway would only happen if there was direct damage to the highway that could not be immediately repaired, Jones said.

"Yesterday (Tuesday) was pretty hectic. Today (Wednesday) is not too bad," he said. "We all just have our fingers crossed, hoping (the rain) will back down in the near future."

However, Wednesday morning's break in rain is only temporary, according to Andy Dixon, hydrometeorological technician with the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

"The (weather) system just wrapping up is departing the area, but unfortunately one just as strong or stronger is on its heels," Dixon said. "It's coming in, affecting us all (Thursday) and the first half of Friday. Expect similar weather, with lots of wind and a lot of water."

The National Weather Service reports that between 3 a.m. Tuesday and 3 a.m. Wednesday, 1.64 inches of rain fell on the southern peninsula.

"The problem is it combining with snow on the ground and on the mountains," Dixon said. "That rapidly increases the effect. That's why the rivers are so full."

By Friday evening, temperatures are expected to drop, which could create icy road surfaces.

"Once it drops below freezing, it could be pretty nasty pretty quick, especially with all the water laying on the road," Dixon said.

Snow is a blessing and a curse when mixed with the recent rainfalls, according to Scott Lindsey, NWS hydrologist.

"Snow, especially at upper elevations, does act as a buffer. It absorbs some of the rain and delays the run-off quite a bit, which helps," Lindsey said. "But it also provides another source of input for the river. You get high temps ... it can really accelerate the snowmelt process."

Lindsey said two stream gauges on the Anchor River indicate that it will "probably be over minor flood stage sometime tomorrow (Thursday) evening. It depends on how heavy the rain is."

If we get as much rain in the next 24 hours as we got in the past 24 hours, "it will definitely go above flood stage. Right now, we're expecting a couple feet below the 2002 level, but still high enough to cause inconvenience."

Lindsey said he has spoken with Scott Walden, KPB OEM, and "they're gearing up for dealing with things as they come."

Lindsey said he did not anticipate the southern peninsula would experience flooding similar to what happened in 2002, when rain damage closed the Sterling Highway in several places.

"I think the worst of it will be during day time tomorrow (Thursday) instead of the middle of the night like in '02. That's a positive," he said. "But it still could cause some pretty significant inconveniences."

As of Wednesday morning, Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer said city workers hadn't seen a lot of drainage problems in the city.

"We are kind of vulnerable," he said. "We have a completely saturated town. The major flood events in the past have come in conditions like this, when everything is soaked up with water."

Meyer cited two storms on Oct. 23 and Nov. 23, 2002, which caused severe flooding on the lower Kenai Peninsula. Those storms caused flooding on Woodard Creek, a creek that runs west of Bartlett Street and underneath Pioneer Avenue, and on East End Road near Spencer Drive, and washed out the Sterling Highway near Black Water Bend.

After those storms, the state, city and borough used Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to upgrade culverts and repair damage.

"Everywhere we did repairs, we oversized culverts," Meyer said. "Hopefully we're a little more bullet proof. Everybody knows, when you've got saturated soils and you've got a heavy rain, there will be some flooding."

Meyer said city crews are monitoring potential problem spots and keeping an eye on the drainages.

"Whether it's Thanksgiving or not, we've got guys on standby," he said.

For updates on weather, visit the Web at www.arh.noaa.gov/. For information from the Kenai Peninsula

Borough Office of Emergency Management, visit the Web at www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency/default.htm.

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