SITKA — One year ago Thursday a series of landslides struck Sitka, taking three lives and leaving behind more than $1 million in damage.
The major landslide on Aug. 18, 2015, struck a new subdivision on Kramer Avenue, where Elmer Diaz, 26, his brother Ulises Diaz, 25, and William Storz, 62, were working. They were killed in the slide and it was days before their bodies could be recovered.
The City and Borough of Sitka commemorated the tragedy with a ceremony at the Kramer Avenue site at noon Thursday. City Administrator Mark Gorman and Paul McArthur, pastor of Grace Harbor Church, spoke.
Aug. 18, 2015
The slide occurred on a Tuesday following a downpour that dropped 2.6 inches of rain between midnight and 10 a.m. — including a three-hour stretch in which 1.5 inches fell. There were at least six landslides in various parts of town, the two major ones at Kramer Avenue and at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park. Other slides damaged Blue Lake Road, which remains closed one year later. A sink hole attributed to the heavy rains opened up in the 900 block of Halibut Point Road.
William Stortz, city building official, was examining water runoff at the Kramer Avenue subdivision when the slide struck. Construction workers Ulises and Elmer Diaz were hanging sheetrock inside a new house that was destroyed by the tons of mud, rocks and trees dislodged from the upland hillside. The unstable debris field and the threat of additional slides delayed the search for the three missing men.
The first reports of the Kramer Avenue slide at 10 a.m. Aug. 18 said four people were missing. That number was soon reduced to three, and they were identified as Stortz and the Diaz brothers.
[‘Life in a smile’: Friends reflect on those lost in Sitka landslide]
More than 100 residents went to the fire hall to volunteer in the search for the victims. Gov. Bill Walker flew to Sitka and issued a disaster declaration. The bodies of Elmer and Ulises Diaz were found in the days following the slides, but a weather front halted search efforts over the weekend and it wasn’t until Tuesday, Aug. 25, that Stortz’ body was located and recovered.
The Aug. 18 rainfall started slides that caused damage throughout Sitka and in surrounding areas such as Salisbury Sound, Halleck Island and Deadman’s Reach in Peril Strait. A section of the Green Lake Road was washed out, cutting off vehicle access to the hydro plant until temporary repairs could be made. Blue Lake Road was damaged so badly that it remains closed to the public. The administration building at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park was hit by a slide of nearly 1,500 cubic feet of debris, damaging one of the exterior walls.
Mayor Mim McConnell said the landslides, not just here but across the region, changed the way she thinks of her role as mayor, the role of the Assembly and the role of the city government.
“I think part of the job of mayor, and as mayor as part of the Assembly is the well-being of the community: are we doing everything we can to help protect the citizens?” McConnell said today. “I consider that part of the job. Those 40 landslides (in the region) were a wake-up call to the whole aspect of community well-being that has been ignored.”
City Administrator Mark Gorman said the landslides have reaffirmed feelings he has had about the community.
“I still reflect every day on the events of a year ago and am humbled by the very moving outpouring of support,” he said. “The hundreds of volunteers that came forward, the food, the support systems. It was very powerful. We live in an incredibly rich community. We Sitkans are privileged to live in this place. When times turn tough Sitka comes out in force.”
He said he already had those feelings, the result of the years he has lived here.
“It reinforced what I’ve always known about this community,” he said. “I felt it many times before, and this was to a much higher degree.”
[Somber day in Sitka: One person recovered, two still missing, 24 families evacuated]
Gorman, who had been city administrator for two years at the time of the slides, said he already felt confidence in the level of professionalism of city staff, a huge number of whom were involved in the response, from volunteer search and rescue, to law enforcement, to professional emergency workers, to the public works, water and electric crews.
“All elements of the city and borough responded to this with a high level of professionalism and quality,” Gorman said. “I came away thinking we are incredibly lucky to have these people serving our community.”
During the emergency, Gorman spent hours with the families of the missing as they waited for news of their loved ones. Gorman was a close friend of William Stortz and was acquainted with the Diaz family. He said he would have been there even if he hadn’t known the victims.
“If anything’s changed, my gratitude for being in this position increased because of the slide,” he said. “It remains a privilege to serve Sitka to the best of my ability. It’s been very powerful to me. It’s been a life-changing experience to be in a position to serve my community and have contact with many, many people who I wouldn’t have known or heard from.”
Fire Chief Dave Miller said the slide tested the capabilities of emergency responders from all areas of the city, and they rose to the challenge.
“We learned that the plans we put in place the last five, six years really worked,” he said. “We may not have used them word for word. We learned how to make things happen.”
[House owner sues over Sitka landslide loss]
Miller said he gives a lot of credit to Assistant Fire Chief Al Stevens for making sure the various departments and agencies ran through responses in tabletop exercises so they were ready to put the plans into play when a real emergency occurred. The fact that the fire hall brought the various agencies and departments together for exercises meant they all knew each other when they had to work closely together the week of Aug. 18.
Miller said he and others at the fire hall saw the best side of the community during the disaster.
“Whether it was medical, whether it was doing a fundraiser … hundreds came out and wanted to help,” he said. “We had so many coming out to help we could only use a percentage of them. It was totally amazing. Overall people in this community are really awesome folks. They really want to help. I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere in the world or the U.S. I’ve said it 100 times before: they went far and above what we expected.”
His conclusion from the landslide is that Sitka is ready, and needs to continue to be ready, for any emergency.
“Living in this environment is hard,” he said. “Tsunamis, floods, landslides … you have to be prepared for an emergency at any time. We can’t predict an earthquake, we can’t predict a tsunami, but you need to be ready.”
That goes for not only for responders but individual citizens as well, who should do their part by having 10 days’ supplies ready in case of communitywide disasters.
“I think we did a good job overall,” he said.
Miller said he does have a different outlook as a result of the slides.
“I look at things differently. When it rains I see what the water is doing in the rivers, I want to know what’s happening ahead of time,” he said.
Mayor McConnell says the risks of landslides seem obvious now, but questions remain as to what and how much the city should do in response to what we now know.
“The fact is we’ve got steep mountains in our community,” she said. “Is there any way to provide better protection in the community and if it is, is it our job to do that? It goes back to community and what protection they want, and the impact on the community, including the economy of the community: how does that affect your property values.”
On the other side, is the question of whether the city — in trying to create rules and laws to provide better protection — is overstepping its role.
“There’s some people who say, ‘I can do what I want — I don’t care if it puts me in harm’s way,’” she said. “If we take it down to the bottom line, none of us should be living here because it’s not safe. The question is how much risk are we willing to take on.”
That question has not been answered, she said.
“That’s a conversation we still need to have and it will help us in moving forward,” she said. “It’s a big question, and it’s something none of us has been willing to talk about because it opens a whole can of worms.”
Among the measures the city has taken was the investigation into the risks posed by landslides. The planning department is moving forward on major projects to learn more about the landscape — and the risks of landslides — after the Planning Commission and Assembly endorsed the idea of a community-wide hazard mapping, focused on slides.
Maps have been created for the South Benchlands, the area of the Kramer Avenue slide, and the area above the Gary Paxton Industrial Park, where the administration building was struck. The draft reports lists areas as zoned low, medium or high risk for slides.
The state Division of Geological and Geophysical Services applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding the community-wide mapping.
“We’re hearing positive things on that,” said Maegan Bosak, City Planning and Community Development director.
At the city level, work is going ahead by the planning and public works staff to develop a “critical areas ordinance” which could set more strict regulations for developers and property owners in the higher risk slide zones.
“What does it prohibit, what does it allow in low, medium and high density areas?” Bosak asked rhetorically, summarizing the issues to be addressed in the ordinance.
While the full study on the GPIP has not been released, preliminary concerns from the research contractor were enough for Gorman to cancel all leases in the administration building effective Sept. 30. The chute left over from the first landslide that hit the administration building has an estimated 500 cubic yards of debris left in it and another chute is also considered a risk to the building.
The city submitted a grant to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services for a “multi-hazard mitigation plan” for Sitka, which would cover not only slides, but planning for the community response and mitigation for tsunamis, floods and earthquakes as well.
Senior Planner Michael Scarcelli was in his second day on the job when the slides occurred.
“It raised an awareness in every project to take a full consideration of drainage, impacts and location,” he said. “It changed the thought process: in analysis for any project whenever it’s a conditional use permit, a variance or subdivision, about how that project may affect the property and the surrounding properties. It has raised staff and community discussion about the next step of development standards. This is evident about support for citywide risk mapping and the discussion at comprehensive plan level about development standards.”
The main slide on south Kramer was a new development that had gone through the planning process at the Assembly and Planning Commission levels. Prior to last Aug. 18, the planning process included consideration of drainage and runoff control in areas on or below steep slopes, but landslide issues were not directly addressed.
Bosak and Scarcelli, who are leading the land use planning process, said as they take on the challenge of looking for possible areas to develop they are looking more for “flat benches.”
“Not just growth in every which way, it’s about planning it out, making sure the hazards are identified and mitigated,” he said. “It heightened my concern to think about every detail of every project.”
The new more careful attention to detail will sometimes call for more work by the public works and building departments – and those who apply for permits.
“Everyone has a heightened awareness and everyone is doing deep analysis, including the applicant themselves,” Scarcelli said.
“We continue learning and strengthening code to meet our tumultuous environment,” Bosak said.
To date the city has removed over 16,000 cubic yards of debris from the Kramer Avenue site. City Engineer Dan Tadic said recovery efforts in that area are mostly complete.
“In terms of the cleanup, the South Kramer site is completed. The North Kramer site is pretty much completed as well. We’ve got bid packages together, largely assembled for Blue Lake Road, Green Lake Road and the access road. Those were also damaged at the time. Those are kind of being run through the electrical department but they’re expected to be moving forward.”
The city’s emergency-related costs have nearly reached the $1 million mark, with over $908,000 spent so far and more costs expected. When Gov. Walker declared a state of emergency, it opened access to $1 million of reimbursement money for cleanup costs. The city has requested nearly $800,000 in reimbursements but has received only around $120,000 thus far, said Jay Sweeney, the city’s chief financial and administrative officer. Actually getting the money isn’t easy, he said.
“I think there is a gulf as wide as the Gulf of Mexico between the understanding and expectations of Assembly members and citizens for how these processes work and the mind-numbing administrative minutia required for reimbursement,” Sweeney said.
The city has informed the state that its costs will likely exceed $1 million, but the state won’t accept an official request for more funds until the city’s costs eclipse that mark.
“We believe that it is imminent that we’ll exceed the $1 million threshold,” Sweeney said. “The response from the state has sort of been: we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
• This story first appeared in the Daily Sitka Sentinel and is reprinted here with permission.
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