Story last updated at 3:49 p.m. Thursday, October 31, 2002

Fall weather far from worst ever
by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

As the sun beat down on a sodden Homer on Sunday, steam rising from the meadows and bluffs, residents had a chance to look back at the meteorological events of the past week. It's been, in a word, wet.

By last week's end, water levels had subsided some. Basements were beginning to dry out as calloused hands were putting down the shovels they'd been white-knuckling since midweek.

Officially, the rains began weeks ago. But on Oct. 23, the skies unleashed an unseasonable -- and unreasonable -- amount of water on the Kenai Peninsula, spilling nearly 3 inches of rain in a 24-hour period as measured at the Homer Airport.

That's more than the 30-year average for the month of October, at 2.77 inches. Heavier rainfall was reported elsewhere on the peninsula.

The rain pooled into drainages and washes already running high from the near-half-inch of rain that fell Oct. 22, and the several inches of rain that had fallen in the prior weeks.

Most locals will tell you that this time of year rain is common. Some will tell you that a certain amount of flooding even is to be expected.

But nobody was prepared for what was to come.

The peninsula sponged up as much of the water as it could. The rest of the water prompted the National Weather Service to put rivers on flood watch, caused creeks to jump their banks, washed out bridges and shredded culverts and, in at least one case, ate away the road.

Chris Maier, with the National Weather Service in Juneau, said that while the rain was not a particularly inordinate amount, the geology of the lower peninsula just is not accustomed to that much water.

"Here in Juneau, we're in a rain forest, and the ground is able to sort of absorb more of the water, and it's able to run off more quickly," he said. "There, because of the vegetation and the washes, the landscape is just not used to supporting that much water."

Water levels on the Anchor River at the Sterling Highway bridge crested at 7.8 feet by the morning of Oct. 24. By the next morning, the river had receded to 4.7 feet.

The National Weather Service estimated that the levels were the highest for the Anchor River in nearly 30 years.

When Homer residents awoke to deceptively sunny skies Oct. 24, the extent of the damage was just becoming apparent. Sterling Highway bridge closures had cut Homer off from the rest of the world, and roads were closed all over town.

That night, the winds began. By early Friday, they reached gusts of more than 48 mph. Though they withdrew for the weekend, others waited in the wings like understudies to take their place.

Skies cleared for the weekend. Sunday was the quintessential fall day. It didn't last.

By Monday, heavy winds again pummeled the town with gusts to 54 mph, and the rain had returned. Nearly a quarter-inch fell Monday, and three-quarters Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, Homer received 7.36 inches of rain since Oct. 1. That's more than two-and-a-half times the monthly average, but it's not a record. Nor is it the first time Homer has flooded.

In 1983, nearly 4 inches of rain fell on Homer in 36 hours. Combined with melting snow, the town suffered flooding remarkably similar to last week's.

Anchor Point and Homer were cut off by road closures and bridge collapses, and East End Road was blocked in three locations, including Bear Creek, as mud, stumps and blocks of ice and coal crashed into the street. Power was out throughout town and across the bay, and a rain gauge in Halibut Cove measured more than 8 inches of rain in three days. Homer measured 8.72 inches for the month.

"That's the last time I remember Homer getting that much rain until now," said Francie Roberts, a high school teacher who for years was a local weather observer.

"It seems to me that I don't recall as much flooding then, but we didn't have as much development then, either."

Traditionally, September is Homer's wettest month, with 3.37 inches of average precipitation. December is a close second, with 3 inches, and November third, with 2.87.

Prior to Wednesday's 2.93 inches, it had rained a measurable amount 19 days since the month began.

Taken at the airport, the average Homer temperature for October is 37.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average low of 31.4 degrees.

At that low temperature, the precipitation would have been snow instead of rain. Generally, an inch of rain equals about 10 inches of snow, though that number depends upon elevation and snow density. Had the temperature been colder, Homer would have been buried instead of drowned.

So how much water is 3 inches of rain?

Three inches of rain on 1 acre of land equals more than 81,000 gallons, and would weigh about 340 tons.

Homer got soaked, but didn't come close to Alaska's heaviest recorded rainfall -- 15.2 inches fell on Angoon, in Southeast, on Oct. 12, 1982.

The skies have been finicky; by Wednesday of this week, they were clearing again. The National Weather Service is calling for a chance of rain nearly every day through Tuesday of next week.

Homer may not have set a rainfall record for October, but Friday marks the start of a new month. Anything can happen.

Chris Bernard can be reached at cbernard@homernews.com.

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