The clock on the fireplace mantle of Marty and Marjorie McKeown’s home is still ticking, and a painting above a bookshelf next to the fireplace is still illuminated by the frame lighting. But the fireplace and bookshelf are hanging in midair and exposed to the elements from a gaping hole beneath, after the floor to half of the couple’s living room was swept away a month ago during the record flooding of the Mendenhall River.
Easily seen through the vast gap in the floor are the remnants of a neighbor’s home that collapsed into the river while observers captured the moment on videos that went viral worldwide. Beyond that home is a condominium whose underside was exposed much like the McKeowns’, but is now propped up with stilts and rock fill in an attempt to make the building safe to live in — something many people in heavily damaged homes didn’t think was possible a month ago.
The good news is similar work is occurring at the couple’s home, Marty McKeown said Sunday while showing its cracked and sagging walls, and other damage whose extent isn’t fully known. The bad news is the cost, who’s paying for it, and longer-term concerns about efforts to prevent a recurrence if a similar flood happens in the future.
“We’re not going to lose it,” he said. “But we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to save it.”
Numerous residents with exposed or threatened homes are making similar efforts, primarily with the help of local companies that are providing boulders and other fill material necessary for “armoring” the riverbank. But in addition to worrying about the costs, there’s also concern about gaps in the so-called armor due to property owners who aren’t installing the fill — leaving a vulnerable spot that will eat away at the protection if and when the next flood hits.
“It’ll just cause a domino effect,” McKeown said.
But — in a relative sense — the couple’s situation is better than what Steve Peterson, 80, one of those homeowners with an unprotected riverbank, said he is going through as he stood on a large patch of soil where his home used to be.
Much of the 7,500-square-foot home he largely built himself starting two decades ago was swept into the river during the flood, and he said he had to pay $37,000 to have the rest of it demolished and hauled to the city’s landfill.
“It would cost me $60,000 to $125,000 to block up that bank,” he said. “I’m not going to do it right now because all I’d be doing is protecting the ground.”
McKeown said a similar situation exists with the neighboring home that was lost, and he can sympathize with their situations, but a solution that protects the other homeowners is needed.
“The city or state or somebody’s got to come in and fix that,” he said.
The flooding on Aug. 5 occurred when Suicide Basin, an ice dam above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier, released an unprecedented 14 billion gallons of water in a cycle that has occurred annually since 2011 known as a jökulhlaup. The volume of water, far exceeding that of previous years, resulted in the river flowing at more than six times its normal rate.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared the floor a state disaster three days later, but McKeown said that level of assistance — if he receives it — won’t come close to covering the costs of repairs and lost possessions. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency visited Juneau recently, but there is no timeline for when they might determine if the situation merits federal disaster aid.
Numerous property owners affected by the flood said their insurance is also largely useless due to the unprecedented nature of the flooding, which hydrologists have called a 500-year event (meaning a 0.2% chance of it happening each year). Some residents who bought flood insurance said they were told it was invalid because their homes weren’t actually flooded — instead, the damage was from the earth vanishing beneath the structures.
Peterson, who said he didn’t have flood insurance, said he nonetheless ran into a similar situation with his claim.
“We had insurance and they wouldn’t honor that,” he said. “The property in general was insured for more than a million and a quarter (dollars). And we we filed a claim for the house, which was probably worth $600,000, or something like that. And they said ‘we’re not going to honor it.’”
Peterson and McKeown both said state caseworkers have been assigned to their applications for disaster assistance, but are skeptical about the prospects of larger-scale help they say is needed from the federal government or some other entity so individuals aren’t bearing the burden of resolving the current and future problems posed by flooding.
Numerous options for controlling the flooding at the source or its impacts downstream were presented during a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting last week. But some — such as bombing Suicide Basin and other ice dams to prevent water releases, were deemed unrealistic. Experts at the meeting said protecting the riverbank was the most practical option, but City Manager Rorie Watt said the cost could be enormous (citing $100 million as a ballpark figure), and there would be complex issues involving permitting and ownership of the “armored” riverbank areas if, for instance, it was performed by the city using federal funds.
McKeown said that while he will survive the damage and repairs — although it will take many years to pay back the costs — it’s not a situation most people living along the riverbank are going to be able to cope with on their own.
”We all are having to pay for it over pockets and we can’t afford it,” he said. “I mean, I’m a very successful businessman, but that’s still a (lot) of money out of pocket. We’re talking about people’s retirements.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.