This composite image shows a Tongass National Forest sign that stands near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer at an event held following the killing of George Floyd, a man voting in the November general election, the effects of early December storms in Juneau and a health care worker at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. (Composite Image / Juneau Empire staff and Unsplash)

This composite image shows a Tongass National Forest sign that stands near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer at an event held following the killing of George Floyd, a man voting in the November general election, the effects of early December storms in Juneau and a health care worker at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. (Composite Image / Juneau Empire staff and Unsplash)

5 stories that shaped Juneau’s 2020

The year was defined by more than COVID-19.

This story has been updated to correct a spelling error.

Some year’s there’s handwringing and debate about what stories defined a year —2020 isn’t one of those.

It was a year in which a pandemic claimed the lives of hundreds of Alaskans, hundreds of thousands of Americans and shaped the way most Alaskans led their lives.

The pandemic introduced face coverings and terms such as “social distancing” to everyday life and prompted mitigation measures and relief bills that affected events nationally, statewide and in Juneau.

COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the cruise season and dozens of annual events; a truncated session for the Legislature; job loss; New Deal-like conservation corps; early release of the Permanent Fund Dividend; changes to how people voted in local, state and federal elections; hunker-down orders; spurred a groundswell of local relief efforts and sparked near endless discussion of how to best balance stemming spread of illness with social, emotional and financial needs.

Despite its inescapable reach, the pandemic was far from the only story that shaped the year and what the next year will bring. Here are three others:

Never-ending elections

Juneauites had multiple opportunities to cast ballots in 2020.

There was a state primary election in August, a municipal general election in October and a state general election in November that featured competitive congressional races and a presidential race that drew the largest voter turnout in U.S. history.

Both the state and the city changed the way elections were conducted in light of the pandemic. Juneau conducted its first by-mail election, and the state waived its requirement for witness signatures on by-mail ballots.

The surge in by-mail voting meant it took longer than usual for votes to be counted, but when the dust settled, turnout for both general elections was robust.

The city election saw its highest turnout in 20 years. In the state general election, 361,400 ballots were counted in November, according to the division of elections. That compares to 285,009 in a 2018 state general election that featured a gubernatorial race and 321,271 in 2016.

The outcome of the elections will also shape local, state and federal policy for years to come.

At the city level, Assembly members Maria Gladziszewski and Alicia Hughes-Skandijs secured reelection and Christine Woll was elected to her first term. Voters also approved a $15 million bond package meant to be spent on schools, parks and infrastructure while putting people to work.

At the state level, several high-profile members of the state House and Senate lost reelection bids in either their primary races or in the general election, which makes it unclear how the 32nd Alaska State Legislature will organize. Both of Juneau’s Democratic representatives were reelected to second terms.

Additionally, a voting reform measure that will introduce ranked-choice voting and open primaries to Alaska elections secured a narrow victory — that faces a legal challenge — fueled by mailed-in ballots.

Republicans Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young will continue to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, respectively.

While President Donald Trump handily secured Alaska’s three electoral votes, former Vice President Joe Biden received the most votes ever for a presidential candidate and 306 votes in the Electoral College. That could shape the next item on this list.

Great debate over great outdoors

This was a big year for several longtime, high-profile and polarizing debates.

In 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture decided to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine and the Bureau of Land Management took steps to hold an oil and gas lease sale for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In each case, the developments follow years of debate, rallies, appeals and legal action, which don’t seem poised to end any time soon.

Conservation-minded organizations and Alaska Native tribal governments are suing the Trump administration for its Roadless Rule decision; multiple lawsuits have been filed related to the ANWR drilling plans; and Northern Dynasty, the developers of the Pebble Mine, announced plans to appeal the decision.

On a similar, but less Alaska-centric note, this year also saw Trump make changes to long-standing environmental regulations.

Changes to the National Environmental Policy Act were lauded by some, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who praised them during a speech at the White House.

However, conservationists bemoaned the changes and shared worries they could enable companies to pollute the nation’s air and water without legal consequences.

National race discussion reaches Juneau

The late May killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis set off waves of protests and renewed scrutiny of law enforcement across the nation.

Floyd’s death, which came on the heels of the high-profile killings of Breonna Taylor in March and Ahmaud Arbery in February, did not spark violence in the capital city, but it did lead to action and conversations.

In the weeks following Floyd’s killing, there were marches and rallies in Juneau, including one attended by Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer, who denounced unnecessary brutality. Communitywide discussions of race also took place online.

Both residents and city officials asked to review Juneau Police Department’s use of force policy during a year in which JPD was sued by the family of a man killed in an officer involved shooting. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice.

JPD brass participated in multiple Assembly meetings and public comment sessions. The department released its use of force policy in early June.

There was also renewed scrutiny of historical figures across the country, and in Juneau, a petition calling for the removal of a statue of William Seward from in front of the state Capitol gained hundreds of signatures.

City and Borough of Juneau Assembly opted to create a new committee specifically to address the sorts of questions related to systemic racism raised in 2o2o.

In late August, the Assembly approved the creation of a Systemic Racism Review Committee via a near-unanimous vote.

Relentless rain and deadly disaster

This year was an exceptionally rainy one —even by Southeast Alaska standards.

This summer, Juneau missed the all-time rainiest mark by just an inch of precipitation, and persistently wet weather thereafter put the capital city within a few inches of setting a new record for the year as a whole. While Juneau received about 14 more inches of rain than in an average year —76.61 as of Dec. 28 compared to 62.27 on average —the capital city had a light load compared to nearby communities.

Ketchikan received 174.68 inches as of Dec. 28, which is almost 3 feet more than its annual average of 141.25 inches.

As the year continued, so did the rain.

Earlier this month, an atmospheric river — a long narrow region that transports water vapor — led to heavy rainfall throughout Southeast Alaska.

While the rain washed out roads and led to landslides locally, they were mild compared to the effects felt about 80 miles to Juneau’s north.

In Haines, a landslide buried homes, wiped out roads and left two missing.

Juneau, and the state as a whole, sent resources and people to the beleaguered community in the days that followed.

On Dec. 5, the governor declared a disaster for the entirety of the region from Haines to Ketchikan.

Most-read stories of the year

These were the five most-read stories on juneauempire.com:

Read my lips: Local company designs PPE for people with hearing loss

Rare white killer whale spotted in Southeast

An exclusive Q&A with presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen

$20,000 warrant out for man who allegedly tortured kittens

Juneau has its first confirmed coronavirus case

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt

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