Two Juneau homes were completely destroyed, one partially destroyed and 15 other residences are currently condemned as uninhabitable following record flooding from Suicide Basin during the weekend, a city official said Monday.
In addition, there are about two dozen residences “that have experienced a varying degree of related damage — anything from flooding to tree strikes to fuel oil tanks getting flooded and spilled, to major and significant erosion issues,” City and Borough of Juneau Deputy Manager Robert Barr told the Empire on Monday afternoon.
Most of the damage occurred as flood waters in the Mendenhall River rose rapidly Saturday afternoon and into the evening, eroding dozens of feet of riverbank while tearing loose trees, oil tanks, and other debris. The debris is causing additional concerns for officials who are monitoring for hazardous contamination and assessing waste management removal options for mass amounts of items that have washed ashore, and residents trying to return some of those items to their original owners.
The water crested at about 11:15 p.m. Saturday and an official flood alert was canceled at 10 a.m. Sunday, but the city has declared the incident a local emergency, and local leaders are in discussions with state and federal disaster officials about further assistance.
The flooding was caused by a release of water from Suicide Basin — a natural event that has occurred annually since 2011 — and the maximum level of 14.97 feet far exceeded the previous record of 11.99 feet in July of 2016. Some scientists and national media reports are speculating on whether climate change might be responsible for this year’s flood and if more such incidents are ahead, but experts said answers are still to be determined.
“This is still a recent phenomenon,” National Weather Service meteorologist Andrew Park told the Washington Post, adding “there’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”
Barr, who has been designated the city’s media spokesperson for the flood, said the number of inquires he’s received is “more than I’ve ever taken for any disaster in the past, including COVID, and three-quarters of them are not local.”
Can some condemned homes be saved?
The condemned residences include two six-unit condominiums that have portions of the buildings hanging over the edge of the bank of the Mendenhall River due to massive erosion from the flooding, Barr said. There are also two single-family residences — including one with a separate apartment — that are condemned.
“That just means they’re unsafe for habitation right now,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they can’t potentially be made safe again.”
Local engineers and contractors examined the condominiums Monday to assess if it’s possible to save the buildings by restoring the missing section of the riverbank, Barr said.
“It’s my understanding of the condo association has been working with and they are seeking some emergency permitting through us, and state and federal agencies…to hopefully build back that bank and potentially save those buildings,” he said. “I will certainly emphasize ‘potentially’ is the key word there — we don’t know.”
Residents of some homes with exposed foundations evacuated their belongings during the weekend, saying they believe there is no realistic possibility of saving the structures. Barr said inspectors on Sunday prioritized those that appear to be most at risk and will first be evaluated to determine if they are salvageable.
If repairs aren’t possible, the property owner is to a large extent responsible for the demolition or other subsequent action, Barr said
“When we condemn something it doesn’t mean that we demolish it,” he said. “It simply means that we that we deem it unsafe for habitation.”
If a property owner disagrees with the city’s assessment that a house is uninhabitable, “their best course of action is to engage with our community development staff and have a conversation with them, and where appeal processes exist they will certainly be advised,” Barr said.
When asked what the city’s responsibility is if a condemned structure posses a possible public hazard — such as a house washing away and putting people and property downstream at risk — Barr said “that’s not something that we’ve worked our way through yet, so I don’t have a comment on that right now.”
The evaluation process of all the condemned and damaged properties is expected to take weeks.
“This won’t be a quick process,” Barr said. “We’re in a long recovery phase right now.”
However, a short-term exemption has been granted to the usual permitting process for flood repair work, according to an official notice published Monday at the City and Borough of Juneau’s website.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has informed CBJ that homeowners that have incurred property damage due to this event may proceed with work to stop further erosion without prior notification to USACE,” the notice states. “Please note that photo documentation is critical as you proceed with this work.”
In addition to the emergency declaration made Sunday that the Assembly is scheduled to consider at a Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night, and possibly seeking state and federal disaster relief, numerous residents affected by the flood are making their own pleas for assistance. Jeff Platt, a GoFundMe spokesperson, stated that as of 11 a.m. Monday there were seven verified local fundraisers on the site that had raised more than $60,000 combined for relief to multiple families.
Dealing with oil and debris in the water and on shore
As residents and onlookers near Mendenhall Glacier watched homes, trees, oil tanks and other items washed away with countless tons of earth, all that material was carried down the flood-swollen river and out into Gastineau Channel. That resulted in oil contamination on land as well as in the water, plus immense accumulations of items on North Douglas and other shorelines.
Ava Christ, who happened to be visiting Juneau for two weeks when the flooding occurred over the weekend, spent multiple hours Monday by herself cleaning up a beach on North Douglas.
She said she had followed the news of the flooding and heard on Facebook that there were cleanup efforts happening around Juneau and wanted to get involved.
“It’s a tragedy, and I love this community so this is a way I can give back,” she said.
Christ said in just a few hours she managed to fill more than four bags of debris washed ashore and found valuables she is attempting to return to the owners. In addition to the smaller items she has found, larger pieces of debris like the frame of a roof, also washed to shore. She said she hopes there is an effort underway to remove the larger debris as she could not remove it by herself.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation began receiving calls about lost oil and propane tanks on Saturday night, although officials were unable to go out to the affected properties until Sunday since evacuations were still in effect, said Rachael Krajewski, Southeast region manager for the department’s spill prevention, preparedness and response program.
“On Sunday we started getting phone calls from the public,” she said. “Odors in the channel, drums that have been spotted floating around in the channel, oil debris and then also impacts to land. So as you drive there was a home heating oil tank that had been turned over on its side and had spilled onto someone’s lawn.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is also monitoring the situation, including conducting overflights of the area, said Shannon Kearney, a petty officer with Coast Guard Sector Southeast Alaska. She said there have been no observations by or reports to the Coast Guard suggesting significant navigation or hazard situations exist in the channel or other nearby open waters.
Krajewski said about 20 calls have been received from people to a department hotline (800-478-9300), reporting sightings of a few loose oil tanks along with other potential sources of fuel contamination. She said oil sheens have been reported in Gastineau Channel, but they don’t appear to be significant enough to warrant containment.
“It’s such a thin layer of oil that any sort of like mechanical attempts at recovering it…I don’t think would be very successful,” she said.
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