Story last updated at 3:09 p.m. Thursday, October 31, 2002

Region mops up after floods
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news

  Photo by Gary Thomas, Homer News
The front yard of Homer Floatplane Lodge on Lakeshore Drive is submerged under the flooding waters of Beluga Lake Thursday.  
Only a week after two storms rolled through the southern peninsula cutting off road access and taking out power for hundreds, area residents are rebounding.

The storm, which swept through the area Oct. 23, caused damage to virtually every spot where the Sterling Highway comes into contact with a creek or river. The floods also washed out numerous side roads and driveways north of Homer, and the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is predicting some of the repairs will extend into next summer.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough and the City of Homer have declared states of emergency, and officials are assessing whether the state will follow suit.

As of press time Wednesday, waters had receded to safe levels along the Sterling Highway and surrounding roads and the only remaining dangers are shoulderless roads and a group of pranksters in the Anchor Point area who keep moving cones and traffic control devices so they direct drivers into dangerous places, said Carl High, superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula District Department of Transportation.

High said other than these issues, the department is "gaining" on the flood damage repairs. Even so, he said, it will take months before repairs are completed.

Trouble started for peninsula roads in the middle of last week, as rivers rose and culverts became plugged with debris. By the morning of Oct. 24, the Sterling Highway was impassible at Blackwater Bend, the Anchor River bridge on the Old Sterling Highway, Stariski Creek and Deep Creek. The road into the village of Nikolaevsk was also washed out, as were Oilwell Road and the road to Ninilchik Village.

photo:

  Photo courtesy of Denise Lassow
Workers build a temporary footbridge across the river along the North Fork Road, which cut off access to the Russian village of Nikolaevsk. The road is expected to be repaired by today.  
While some of the washouts took drivers by surprise, causing accidents (See related story, Page 3A), perhaps the biggest concern in those early hours was on the Anchor River. By around 9 a.m. Oct. 24, Alaska State Troopers were alerted to the fact that water was building up behind the Sterling Highway where it dips over the North Fork of the Anchor River.

At one point, the water rose so high it nearly topped two power poles running through the ravine, said trooper Sgt. Jim Hibpshman. If the water had busted through the road, it would have sent a huge wall of water down the valley.

"We said, 'That's it, we've got to get everybody out of the valley,'" he said. "We went down and warned everybody we could find."

The road held back the water, but enough came through the Anchor River area to make the roads in front of the Old Sterling Highway bridge flood with several feet of water.

One woman was temporarily stranded by the Anchor River's overflow when she tried to drive up the beach access road. Hibpshman said she was able to call for help on her cell phone from on top of her car after her engine flooded. A Good Samaritan came by and pulled her and her vehicle out of harm's way before emergency crews responded, he said.

Luckily for Anchor Point, the Sterling Highway held back the wall of water, and the culverts eventually caught up with the flow of water, diminishing the danger. By Friday, the Old Sterling Highway reopened.

"Stan Harrington, who owns a tackle shop at the edge of the Anchor River Campground, said water from the river had flooded his parking lot.

"It's the worst I've seen since I was a kid, and definitely the worst it's been in the last 20 years since the last time we had a fall flood," he said.

The Sterling Highway may have reconnected Homer and Anchor Point in a day, but residents north of Stariski Creek were less lucky. One of the culverts that ran under the road plugged, sending water flowing over the road and causing significant erosion.

As of Wednesday, High said, the Stariski Creek crossing was back up to two lanes with few delays.

Farther up the road, Deep Creek overflowed its banks, cutting a new route and washing out a 50-foot section of the Sterling Highway bridge. Peninsula Mayor Dale Bagley said he surveyed the damage and found the Deep Creek site the most impressive.

"That's a creek," he said Wednesday. "Usually, you can pretty much wade across it, even when the water's up. For it to fill up and come over the bridge on both approaches, that's a lot of water coming down the valley."

DOT had originally thought it would need to use a temporary bridge to span the gap left in Deep Creek bridge, but closer inspection showed that the bridge's main supports were still in place and repairs could be made, said DOT spokesman Murph O'Brien.

In the Ninilchik area, the Deep Creek bridge outage was far from the only problem. People's homes were flooded, cars were swept downstream and other property was damaged. Hibpshman said the efforts of local emergency responders were critical to the entire community coming out of the incident safely.

The road to the Ninilchik Village fell victim to the raging river as well, leaving a large section of the road washed out and the bridge separated from its banks. High said, however, that initial repairs were expected to be completed in that area as of Wednesday.

With that repair, all state roads except one will be open to traffic, High said. The only remaining major repair will be in Nikolaevsk. Locals rallied and built a temporary wooden footbridge across the river, said Hibpshman, allowing people to get supplies to the village. High said crews placed the culvert in the river Wednesday and expect to have the road open today.

With the immediate work out of the way, O'Brien said, crews can begin analyzing what will need to be done over the next few weeks to get the roads up to the highest standard possible before winter. A major push is under way to get temporary pavement on many sections before the snow flies, High said.

"It will take several months" to finish repairs, High said. "I don't know if we'll get it all done before winter."

One stretch of road that is likely to pose a problem for crews is a slide between Baycrest Hill and the entrance to Diamond Ridge Road on the Sterling Highway, High said. In a ravine, a slide occurred on the side of the hill that will need to be stabilized.

"That's a bigger problem than what you would think," High said. "The whole slope got supersaturated and took a ride."

On borough roads, the situation is also daunting. Ninilchik's Oilwell Road had five major washouts, Bagley said, and one repair suffered further damage Tuesday night when water levels rose again. Countless other roads suffered washouts during the past week, he said.

Bagley declared an emergency disaster in the southern and eastern zones of the borough on Friday, and asked the state to declare the area a disaster emergency. Homer has also declared a disaster. Bagley said the declaration will allow the borough to pay for some of the costs it has incurred, although he said the total cost of the disaster has not been tallied yet.

The DOT said it expects to release preliminary figures later this week regarding the costs of the flooding, but said it does not expect the costs will come from the general operating budget of the department. If necessary, O'Brien said, DOT will ask for a special appropriation from the Legislature.

Generally speaking, peninsula residents weathered the floods well, Hibpshman said, keeping positive spirits and staying out of danger. Only one injury occurred on the Stariski Creek construction area, when a contractor's leg was injured in an accident with a backhoe Tuesday night, he said.

Another woman cut off by the flooding had to be evacuated by helicopter for medical reasons, but was in good condition, he said.

Bagley said he is not surprised by the peninsula's resilience.

"Alaskans always come through for each other," he said. "They don't wait for government to fix things. People take care of bad situations, and it shows the spirit of Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula when people come together like that."

The Peninsula Clarion contributed to this story.

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homernews.com.

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