Story last updated at 1:20 p.m. Thursday, November 28, 2002

Rain washes out Homer again
by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

photo: news

  Photo by Gary Thomas, Homer News
DOT's Mike Morawitz escorts Wally and Brian Gauthier and Levi West through the floodwaters across East End Road on Saturday.  
Exactly a month to the date of the Oct. 23 rains that flooded the lower Kenai Peninsula, washing out roads and severing Homer from the rest of the world, it happened again.

More than 3 inches of rain fell beginning Friday and ending late Saturday night.

But the latest rain found the ground already saturated from one of the soggiest autumns on record. The water sought someplace to go, carrying with it much of the debris that was torn loose last month and significant amounts of gravel and silt.

Road crews began to appear at culvert crossings by late Saturday morning and would remain on the job throughout the weekend. Culverts, including many new ones that were replaced just last month, were plugged quickly.

Water washed out East End Road at Bear Creek. Complicating matters was a state-contracted backhoe operator who accidentally shredded a water main, adding to the rush of flooding and cutting the water supply to nearly 100 homes in the area.

By Wednesday morning the road was still closed, but Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer said lines had been flushed and water restored to all the affected customers.

photo: neighbors

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
The Anchor River Bridge on the Sterling Highway near Black Water Bend suffers new damage Saturday, which closed the road for the second time this fall.  
"There was probably as much water this time," Meyer said, "but not as much debris. Lots of gravel and silt, and we had some erosion problems."

East End Road was expected to have been reopened by Wednesday.

Gary Davis, road service area director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said this round of flooding was worse than the last, with more debris in the higher elevations than in town.

"Oh, yeah. There was so much loose debris and gravel and silt that culverts just plugged right up," he said Monday. "We have residents stranded, and we're working on getting to them right now with emergency passage."

In Homer, road washouts and mudslides left residents stuck in their homes along East End Road, he said. (See related story, this page.)

"Roads at culvert crossings were in trouble over the weekend," Davis said.

Saturday afternoon, city and state Department of Transportation crews kept a nervous eye on areas that looked like they might get worse. Water rushed across East End Road and Pioneer Avenue, right in Homer's downtown, in several locations, including one in front of the high school.

A culvert adjacent to the Homer High football field clogged. Water backed up until the ravine was filled, and then went over the top.

"There's a lot of damage at the creek there," Meyer said Monday. "That culvert is blocked. The water washed out the embankment below it. It's probably the worst problem that I've seen as a result of this."

Bruce Turkington, branch manager of Spenard Building Supply, said the high school flooding also hit the store's lot.

"We have a lot of underground culverts on the property, and the culverts were plugged right up," he said. "We were cotton-picking lucky that we got them unplugged."

Turkington said that large slabs cut from trees during an old landscaping project at the high school had come downstream and blocked the SBS culverts.

"We got them cleared just in time Saturday, and then again on Sunday when they got the state culvert opened on East End Road and all the water came rushing down," he said. "We're still waiting for the big one. When they get the high school dam cleared, we're going to get a huge rush of water."

Other trouble areas included a culvert washout at Saltwater Drive, and heavy flooding in the Soundview neighborhood.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, homes were evacuated in low-lying areas Saturday, and an eight-mile stretch of the Sterling Highway and two bridges were closed as the Anchor River and several streams flooded again.

Alaska State Troopers began evacuating homes Saturday night south of Mile 161 in the Black Water Bend area of the Anchor River, and the Sterling Highway was closed between miles 157 and 165. Traffic was routed along the Old Sterling Highway until authorities pronounced the bridge unsafe and closed it.

"It was just roaring (on Saturday)," said Steve Stichler of Quality Asphalt and Paving, the state's main contractor for area road repairs. "I had 80-foot trees drifting by me."

Stichler said the Black Water Bend spot had been considered for an armor rock upgrade, but DOT opted to wait until spring. Now, he said, DOT will likely put in rock-armored bank upstream from the bridge.

The road crew at the Old Sterling Highway bridge said that at its peak, the water was crossing the road 3 feet deep and pouring over into the parking lot and along Beach Access Road. The road surface and embankment adjacent to the bridge suffered erosion, and mud flows were visible on Beach Access Road well down toward the beach.

Some families unable to return to their homes spent the weekend holed up at the Anchor River Inn in Anchor Point. Nearly three-quarters of the inn's 20 rooms were booked by DOT and contractor personnel.

"We were booked up, and we had people sleeping in our parking lot," said employee Mary McAnelly. "We called around the B and Bs and they were all full, too. This was definitely worse than last time, with more people involved."

McAnelly estimated that the inn turned away about 30 people Saturday night.

The Homer High School wrestling team, visiting Soldotna for a tournament, was unable to get through to Homer and spent Saturday night at the Chapman School in Anchor Point. Teams from Kenai and Soldotna, in Homer for a fund-raising women's basketball tournament, began leaving town early Saturday in hopes of getting through before the roads were closed, and the tournament was cut short.

By Sunday afternoon, the Old Sterling Highway was reopened to one lane of traffic. The Sterling Highway was open by Wednesday.

Davis said the impact of the flooding on the borough roads budget won't be known for a while, but he isn't worried.

"This could affect, without reimbursement from disaster funds, our capital funding, but we won't let it affect our maintenance budget," he said. "Right now, we're just focusing on getting it cleaned up. Crews are out there working hard, and they're all doing a great job."

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

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