Members of the National Weather Service monitor flooding on the Mendenhall River on Thursday, July 19, 2018, after a release of water from Suicide Basin on Wednesday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Members of the National Weather Service monitor flooding on the Mendenhall River on Thursday, July 19, 2018, after a release of water from Suicide Basin on Wednesday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Authorities, residents brace for annual flooding

• Flooding on Mendenhall River peaked at 10.9 feet Thursday afternoon, but flooding still significant • Preparing for glacial outburst has become yearly exercise for officials, homeowners

At a little after noon Thursday, U.S. Forest Service Officer Dave Zuniga stood on Skaters Cabin Road, directing drivers away from the area.

Suicide Basin, in a side lobe of the Mendenhall Glacier, had begun its long-awaited release of water Monday evening and Mendenhall Lake and River were flooding.

[Weather Service issues flood watch as Juneau awaits glacial outburst]

The Forest Service evacuated about a dozen people from the Mendenhall Campground on Thursday morning, Recreation Program Manager for the Juneau Ranger District Ed Grossman said, and Zuniga was there to make sure people stayed away from the campground, Skaters Cabin and the West Glacier Trail.

A man in a Dodge Ram pickup truck pulled up to the orange cones blocking the road. He had come to see the flood.

“I don’t see the water!” the man in the truck yelled.

“It’s coming,” Zuniga said calmly. “It’s right around the corner.”

For some in the area, including View Drive resident Don Habeger, the water had already arrived.

Habeger has lived in his home since 2002 and has become accustomed to the recent glacial floods, also known as jökulhlaup, that have been occurring once or twice a year since 2011. He stood at the back of his carport, eating a piece of Costco pizza on an orange plate and explaining as he stood about a foot away from the water that was quickly making its way to the house.

“If we did nothing, the garage would get about eight inches of water at the height of the event,” Habeger said. “We’re trying to mitigate that by putting in sandbags and a little dam there. This year we’ll also have, essentially a two-inch gas-powered pump.”

Flooding as expected

The flooding was at just above nine feet at that point. The National Weather Service initially expected it to approach 12 feet — which would break the previous record set in 2016 — by 10 p.m. Thursday. But Mendenhall River crested early at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at 10.9 feet. The water level began falling right away after that, though significant flooding was still underway.

NWS Senior Service Hydrologist Aaron Jacobs was monitoring the flooding in comparison with the 2016 flood, and said the pace of the flooding was originally “in lockstep” with the pace in 2016. He said that long before the flood is imminent, organizations are working together to monitor the state of the glacier to try and predict how severe the jökulhlaup might be that year. He said UAS and UAF help out in this aspect.

“It’s not just one entity,” Jacobs said. “It’s a big team effort.”

The organizations communicating with each other in the case of flooding like this include NWS, the U.S. Geological Survey, USFS, the City and Borough of Juneau, Capital City Fire/Rescue, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and even the University of Alaska Southeast and University of Alaska Fairbanks.

CBJ Emergency Program Manager Tom Mattice said the coordination has gotten easier over the years.

“It’s getting to where we’ve done it enough now where everything just kind of falls into place,” Mattice said.

Preparing in advance

Long-term preparation doesn’t just fall on weather forecasters. John Neary, the director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, said they have raised the level of the popular Nugget Falls trail specifically as a result of the jökulhlaup.

In previous years, he said, people would still walk down that trail even as it flooded. He said people would go off the trail to get to higher ground so they could get out of the water but still walk along basically the same path.

In order to cut down on people walking around and damaging the wildlife that grows along the trail, the Forest Service (which runs the visitor center) used gravel to raise the height of the trail, Neary said.

DOT&PF Public Information Officer Aurah Landau said that DOT&PF is responsible for two bridges over the Mendenhall River — the Brotherhood Bridge and the one that carries Mendenhall Loop Road over the river — and that both of those bridges have been thoroughly inspected during the past two years.

Grossman said they evacuated the Mendenhall Campground before the flooding began and found other places around town for people to set up their tents. He said they told guide companies to stay off the lake.

Grossman said they also had to contact people who had reserved spots at the campground over the weekend and tell them they might have to make other plans. Still, he said there’s a real possibility that the campground will be back open by Friday night. Multiple authorities said that as well, that after the flooding peaks it usually abates rapidly.

Habeger has a front-row seat, and said he has learned the river’s language over the years.

“I think the river can talk to you,” Habeger said. “You can see the energy coming down the river and the waves building up. When it hits the peak, you can almost watch those waves begin to calm and then everything starts receding.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


Randy Host, Jamie Pierce and Rob Schenker of the United States Geological Survey prepare to take water volume measurements of the Mendenhall River off the Mendenhall Loop Road Bridge on Thursday, July 19, 2018, after a release of water from Suicide Basin on Wednesday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Randy Host, Jamie Pierce and Rob Schenker of the United States Geological Survey prepare to take water volume measurements of the Mendenhall River off the Mendenhall Loop Road Bridge on Thursday, July 19, 2018, after a release of water from Suicide Basin on Wednesday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Anthony Mallott, center, hands out paddles as he brings a canoe to help people across a flooded section of View Drive on Thursday, July 19, 2018, after a release of water from Suicide Basin on Wednesday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Anthony Mallott, center, hands out paddles as he brings a canoe to help people across a flooded section of View Drive on Thursday, July 19, 2018, after a release of water from Suicide Basin on Wednesday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 20

Here’s what to expect this week.

A U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka helicopter hovers over Sitka Sound during routine hoist training. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Lt. Cmdr Wryan Webb)
Yakutat-bound charter flight missing from Juneau

Flight departed from Juneau on Saturday with three people aboard, according to U.S. Coast Guard.

President Biden at the White House on July 3. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden drops out of race, scrambling the campaign for the White House

Withdraws under pressure from fellow Democrats; endorses Vice President Kamala Harris to take on Trump.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, July 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Buttons on display at a campaign event Monday, July 8, 2024, in Juneau, urge supporters to vote against Ballot Measure 2, the repeal of Alaska’s current election system. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Ranked-choice repeal measure awaits signature count after Alaska judge’s ruling

Signatures must be recounted after judge disqualifies almost 3,000 names, citing state law violations.

The offices of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Juneau are seen on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska demographers predict population drop, a switch from prior forecasts

For decades, state officials have forecast major population rises, but those haven’t come to pass.

Neil Steininger, former director of the state Office of Management and Budget, testifies before the House Finance Committee at the Alaska State Capitol in January of 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Neil Steininger, former budget director for Gov. Dunleavy, seeking District 1 Juneau Assembly seat

Downtown resident unopposed so far for open seat; deadline to file for local races is Monday.

A mother bear and a cub try to get into a trash can on a downtown street on July 2, 2024. Two male bears were euthanized in a different part of downtown Juneau on Wednesday because they were acting aggressively near garbage cans, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Two black bears in downtown Juneau euthanized due to aggressive behavior around people

Exposed garbage, people insistent on approaching bears contribute to situation, official says

Most Read