Storm-caused bluff erosion threatens homes
After 11 years living in the 2,000-square-foot, post-and-beam house Gary Stevenson built for himself and his wife, Grace, Stevenson woke up on a recent September morning anticipating the view he has enjoyed since they moved in: an unobstructed look at Cook Inlet, the distant string of mountains and, best of all, an eagle nest at the top of a cottonwood tree.
The tree’s position on the tree- and alder-covered slope stretching between the couple’s Anchor Point house and the beach below placed the nest even with the Stevensons’ 70-feet of inlet-facing windows.
Storms hitting the peninsula last month had caused changes, however.
“I looked for my favorite eagle tree and the tree was gone,” said Stevenson.
A portion of the bluff had sloughed off during the night, taking the cottonwood tree and nest with it.
“I drove down to the beach and looked at it from there and, holy mackerel, everything was gone. The tree was lying in the river.”
While the hillside appeared undisturbed from the Stevensons’ living room windows, the storms had reduced the lower half to “bare sandstone and a little bit of clay at the bottom.”
With rain continuing to fall, Stevenson worried the upper half of the bluff, along with the house, would follow suit.
“We’re sleeping in our camper at night if it rains,” said Stevenson. “If it doesn’t rain, we take a chance and sleep in the house. I’m just praying for cold weather and, if it freezes up, I think this place will stay until spring.”
A few miles north, Kathy Kacher and a visitor got a hint of the storms’ power.
“There was a rumble and my friend looked at me and said, ‘Was that thunder?’ I said I guess so, it was kind of a warm storm,” said Kacher.
The next day, while Kacher was at work, her friend stopped to ensure rain was draining away from Kacher’s home and discovered the source of the sound.
“He was standing there and heard the rumble again. He turned around and the bluff was going down the hill,” said Kacher of an area that sloughed to within 12 feet of her two-story, 4,400-square-foot home.
What had once been a “nice bowl” with a heavily wooded, 45-degree slope and a boxed-in spring once used by homesteaders was reduced to “a sheer cliff. It’s like a moonscape,” said Kacher.
The Stevensons and Kacher were among 50 Anchor Point area residents at a Friday meeting with representatives from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, the borough’s road service area and the state of Alaska to discuss flood-related damage, response and recovery plans.
Scott Walden, OEM director, described the immensity of damage caused by typhoon-like weather in the Seward area and two back-to-back storms that struck the southern Kenai Peninsula. Seward suffered significant damage. Rains near Tyonek threatened roads and bridges. Nanwalek had landslides. Seldovia reported roads washed out. The Funny River area experienced flooding. An ice dam that appeared ready to burst threatened to raise the water level in Skilak Lake an additional four feet.
Walden said the cost to evaluate repairs needed for roads and bridges would cost a minimum of $1.1 million.
In return, Walden heard from Anchor Point homeowners with flooded basements, washed-out streets and contaminated wells and septic systems. They expressed frustration over calls for help from the borough that drew slow, if any, response.
“It wasn’t like we were trying to ignore problems. It’s just that there are so many problems,” said Walden.
Walden praised the efforts of the Anchor Point Fire Department for keeping OEM informed and the response from the borough’s road service area and oil and gas companies working in the area. North of Anchor Point, Enstar Natural Gas Company employees and contractors worked with residents to repair damage to Tall Tree Avenue and a bridge when Stariski Creek flooded its banks.
Rebecca Lopez with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security provided information on the Individual and Family Grant Program that provides a maximum $15,700 per disaster. The assistance can be used to repair damage to or loss of permanent housing, replace personal property, repair or replace a primary vehicle, and pay for disaster-related medical and dental expenses, and funeral expenses for disaster-related deaths, of which there were none during the peninsula’s September storms. In addition, a temporary housing program provides assistance to individuals or families whose primary residences are uninhabitable as a result of a disaster.
This week the state opened a disaster assistance center in the Anchor Point Fire Station to help those hurt by the storms complete assistance applications. The deadline for submitting the applications is Nov. 20. To apply, homeowners must have proof of home ownership, identification, insurance information and a description of the damages or losses.
“We had 16 applicants on Monday and more coming in today,” John Ramsey, manager for the Division of Homeland Security, said Tuesday. “Everyone filled out their paperwork and we are sending it in to see what resources are available and what we can do for them or other resources that are available.”
The Anchor Point center was open Monday and Tuesday. A center in Seward was open Monday through Wednesday and a center in Soldotna is open today.
While they wait to see if they qualify for assistance, Kacher and the Stevensons are exploring options to ensure their homes are safe.
“I’m just praying this snow keeps coming and it freezes up real hard and it gives me time to figure out what to do,” said Kacher, who had local geologist Ed Berg examine the eroded section of bluff near her home.
“There’s about 20 feet of sand and then a very hard glacial till layer below that,” said Berg. “If the whole cliff was sand, I would recommend that she move the house, but because of the thick clay-glacial till layer, the site is basically stable. … I felt better about her situation after I had seen the massive clay layer.”
Berg did, however, describe the area on a geological scale as “definitely unstable, but it might be several decades before there would be a more massive failure.”
In terms of building homes along bluffs, Berg recommended against it.
“But once they’re there, how much money do you want to pay to move your house?” he said.
Kirk Olsen, a local appraiser, said a house’s proximity to a bluff is a factor in financing.
“Underwriters want to know that over the life of a mortgage the property is going to be secure,” said Olsen. “Researching long-term erosion rates can be done with the help of borough maps. They can help a homeowner or buyer determine what might happen during the life of a 30-year mortgage. When a bluff slides, it’s not just a matter of the impact on current financing, but also on the long-term marketability of the property. That marketability directly affects its value.”
The location of the Stevensons’ house has personal significance.
“I’ve been here a long time and we all kept our boats below where the house is now,” said Stevenson. “I used to look up at this spot and there was a ‘for sale’ sign on it, but I never could afford it. Then, one day 30 years later, I drove down, bought it and built this house.”
Earlier this week Stevenson contacted someone willing to move the two-story house an additional 45 feet away from the bluff next spring.
“If we can save it, it’ll sure be nice,” said Stevenson. “We’ll just hold on and hope for the best.”
For more information about assistance for storm damage.
• State of Alaska Individual Assistance hotline, call 1-855-445-7131.
• Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management: (907) 714-2484, visit the Kenai Peninsula Borough Facebook page or www2.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency/default.htm
• For information on a reduction of Kenai Peninsula Borough assessment resulting from a disaster such as flooding or a fire, call (907) 714-2230.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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