Amanda Arra saw about 50 feet of her backyard consumed by the Mendenhall River in just a few hours as its waters began rising to a record flooding level Saturday afternoon. By evening, as nearby homes fell into the river, she realized she was going to lose hers as well.
Her home was still intact at midday Sunday, but with about a quarter of the structure hanging over the eroded riverbank as numerous friends carried her belongings outside the house Arra had abandoned the night before. She said there clearly is no way to make the house safe to live in again.
“I’m just shaking like a leaf and I can’t think straight, so I haven’t even gone in, but they’re getting it emptied out,” she said while sitting in a chair in her driveway.
Arra is among the dozens of Juneau residents pondering short- and long-term uncertainties, and the implications of the record flooding from Suicide Basin that was declared a local emergency by the city Sunday.
A few residents lost their homes. Numerous other locals say their homes are doomed as they hang over the eroded edges of riverbanks, and people whose homes were “merely” flooded say they’re facing the massive task of repairing spaces saturated by water contaminated with oil and other substances.
Arra, a Juneau resident since 1987, said erosion was never a concern at her riverside home, even during the previous record level of flooding in 2016. When she got home at about 3 p.m. Saturday she saw the water was higher than she’d ever seen it, but “I still didn’t know it was going to come up so high.”
“We sat down there and were just watching it, and all of a sudden trees started to fall in,” she said. “And that’s when I started to get concerned. Tree after tree after tree, and then (my neighbor’s) house started to go — the porch fell off.”
By about 8 p.m. Arra realized the water, which officials on Friday said would likely reach its peak height at 6 p.m. Saturday, was still rising.
“Then I realized I’m going to need to evacuate and it’s probably going to take my house,” she said.
Homes damaged, doomed and destroyed
Across the river, nearly an entire house on Riverside Drive fell into the rising waters, although its owners were away and people were able to carry out many of the items inside beforehand, according to neighbors who were also scrambling with their own efforts to salvage their possessions.
Marjorie McKeown, living in a house next door, said about 75 feet of terrain between her residence and the river — including a fire pit and dog yard — quickly began eroding Saturday afternoon. At about 5 p.m. she and others began moving everything off the deck that would be consumed by the flooding, and then began removing items from the house as the earth under the foundation crumbled away.
McKeown said she and her husband spent the night in a trailer in their driveway and were continuing to remove items from the house Sunday, assuming it will be uninhabitable.
Two buildings in a condominium complex on the other side of the house that fell into the river were evacuated Saturday night and was surrounded by barrier tape to prevent outsiders from trespassing. Erosion also exposed portions of the foundations of those buildings. A property manager at the complex Sunday declined to comment on the next steps for the buildings and its residents.
For residents of flooded homes on solid foundations as the water receded Sunday, the prospects ahead are still daunting.
Bob and Chris Winter, who since 1983 have lived in one of the homes on View Drive that were cut off by massive flooding of the road Saturday, said they raised the foundation of their house three feet after previous record flooding years ago infiltrated their house. Bob Winter said the amount recommended by an expert assessing the house the couple built appeared to be safe since, until this year, water never got close to the bottom of their deck.
But on Saturday it rose a few inches above the deck, flooding the entire first floor of the house and the couple’s garage.
“I moved stuff upstairs I really cared about,” Chris Winter said. “I didn’t get everything out because we did not anticipate it.”
Solving short-term situations
When the water receded on Sunday the couple was left with carpets and floors caked in silt, and saturated by water infused with heating oil from broken tanks and other contaminants. Chris Winter said that damage will mean replacing the floors, damaged portions of the walls, door installations, and other portions of the house and garage. The couple is insured, but the maximum coverage for residences under the National Flood Insurance Program is $250,000 for the structure and $100,000 for its contents.
Next door on View Drive, Malachi Thorington and Elizabeth Figus are also facing a lengthy assessment and recovery period for their home that was saturated.
“I think it is going to be to figure out cutting into the walls, the wet drywall,” she said. “I was just looking at our crawl space and all the insulation got flooded, and we have to go down there and clean all that.”
Both couples were still sorting out the immediate damage while talking to each other on the Winters’ porch Sunday morning.
“If anybody finds our brand-new, never-used sewer pump that’s maybe seven feet tall give us a call,” Figus said.
“It was stuck in our trees for 10 hours,” Chris Winter told her. “And then it was gone.”
Plenty of other debris ranging from oil tanks to trees was swept away as well, washing up ashore further downstream or after entering Gastineau Channel, some making its way to the shores of North Douglas. Officials kept the bridge over the Mendenhall River at Back Loop Road closed until about 11 a.m. Sunday as they assessed the stability of the bridge and trees still standing near where many others had fallen, at one point bringing down one tree next to the bridge due to soil instability.
Power, which was cut off to many homes in the flooded area by AEL&P on Saturday to prevent electrical damage, was largely restored early Sunday morning. The shutoff also affected sewer systems in the homes and, on View Drive, one of two variable frequency drives controlling the system in a utility box that was half submerged in water was inoperable at midmorning Sunday.
The failure of the device wasn’t affecting residents since the sewer system can function with one in operation, said Scott Simonson, the city’s senior wastewater operator, who was inspecting the utility box with Freedom Electric owner and operator Jesse Ross at about 11 a.m. Sunday. Simonson said he’d been working non-stop since 2 p.m. Saturday inspecting and addressing utility issues related to the flood as well as some that weren’t.
“We do it probably once a year,” he said, referring to the nearly 24-hour emergency shift. “There’s usually some storm event that occurs.”
Looking at the long-term implications
Beyond repairing their home during the coming months are longer-term concerns, Figus said.
“We’re definitely raising our house,” she said. “How do we do that? Clearly our neighbors got the wrong advice years ago.”
The couples at the neighboring houses on View Drive spent some of their time together Sunday discussing the implications of the flooding such as whether similar levels are ahead in future years, what will happen to their property insurance rates, and if the city and/or other entities might be responsible for not properly assessing the potential risk of Suicide Basin.
“CBJ has done a phenomenal job at developing an avalanche mitigation system, the Thane road and for all (those) different houses,” Figus said. “They have not done a thing in the 11 years I’ve lived here to mitigate any of these houses.”
At Arra’s house hanging over the edge of the river further downstream, she said her short- and long-term plans are simple because she owns a small second home she can move into.
“I’m just going to downsize and live in the cottage,” she said.
But Arra said she hopes Saturday’s flooding is an alert to local officials and residents since she suspects climate change — attributed as the cause of unprecedented natural disasters in many other places worldwide — may well be responsible for the historic flooding at Suicide Basin.
“There’s so many people who don’t believe it’s real,” she said.