Disaster rains on Seward
Man battles nature’s fall flooding
Julian Kegel | Keen-eyephoto.com
Friday’s break between storms allows a bird’s eye look at the extent of flooding in the Seward area.
It’s been a silty, wet, stormy flood nightmare, especially for residents of low lying areas, those living near streams or below levees that broke or spilled over, and who did all they could to fight back, to stop basements, crawl spaces and living rooms from filling with silt and water.
City, borough and Metco Inc. employees tried valiantly to save area infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as rising creeks and streams overtopped their banks, and mountain dikes strained and broke under the strain of relentless rainfall.
Most dramatic perhaps was the scene at the Lowell Point bridge where men on heavy equipment, like Metco’s Tom Gillespie, risked their lives as they braved the raging waters below the bridge and the diversion tunnel’s bulging gray waterfall above, digging out gravel and debris, trying to prevent the bridge from being swept away by debris from the canyon above. As of this writing, they had succeeded in that, and in keeping the waters from spilling down Railway Avenue, or from flooding nearby buildings. The diversion tunnel handled the incoming water from above, as folks kept a watch that the tunnel wasn’t blocked.
The new levee road at Forest Acres also held fast, and helped the people in Forest Acres.
A similar scene of man fighting nature took place at Mill Creek/Lost Creek subdivision, where Metco workers and borough road crews dug gravel from the area stream beds, and tried to shore up creek banks to save the bridge — the only entrance for neighborhood residents and area homes. Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Department members stood by to help if needed, and were on call to help anyone who wanted to evacuate.
For most, these scenes were eerily familiar. When you live at the base of two major ice fields, surrounded by seven alluvial-fan glaciers, and go through heavy back-to-back rainstorms, it’s what happens. Those “100-year floods” that the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, often refers to for insurance purposes, have been occurring here every couple of years it seems; including 2009, and before that in 2006 just to name the most recent ones.
Seward City Manger Jim Hunt declared a local state of emergency at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19 in order to get ahead of the next oncoming storm system, and to be organized to prevent further flooding. By the time the emergency was declared, and the Emergency Operations Center put in place, minor flooding was already occurring over the Seward Highway bike path, and around Becky Dunn’s Knots So Fast feed store, and surrounded Stash & Store. Water also ran across the new levee road in two places near the Alaska Waste borough transfer facility.
Things started to turn bad the previous week, however, when the National Weather Service issued a variety of flooded creek warnings and high wind watches. The last cruise ship Statendam chose to arrive a day early in Seward on Saturday, Sept. 15, and stayed an extra night due to high seas. The city went on diesel backup generation for a time after a tree fell on the main power line to Seward during high winds and rain late that night. And city electric crews had also dealt with an underground parallel ground fault failure in Camelot Subdivision.
By late Monday morning Sept. 17, normal power had been restored to downtown Seward, and the power was back on in Camelot, but another round of strong winds and heavy rain was predicted for the area Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, Sept. 18, the National Weather Service again warned residents to avoid driving in flooded areas, and to closely monitor the situation and prepare for a potentially dangerous weather event due to an expected four to seven inches of rain.
On Wednesday morning, Sept. 19, the Weather Service’s flood warning declared that flooding was imminent. The levee road was closed, and Exit Glacier Road was closed at Mile 7 due to Resurrection River flooding. By noon, city officials announced flash flooding in the creek south of the Bear Creek Fire Station was impacting the Seward Highway and that Lowell Point Road also was closed due to a landslide.
In an early press release, the city said flooding was occurring at Phoenix and Chiswell avenues and roads were closed including Port Avenue and Exit Glacier at Mile 7. They had begun working with borough to coordinate a flood response.
Not long after the state of emergency was declared, school buses picked up the older students a little early to allow time for all students to make it home. After-school activities were canceled. The schools closed for the following two days, but opened again on Monday. An emergency shelter was opened at Seward High School gymnasium, and some people evacuated from Windsong Lodge, and from a few other evacuated areas went there for the night. The shelter was closed the following day due to lack of people requesting assistance.
State road workers and volunteer fire crews labored overnight at Mile 2 Nash Road, when the culvert couldn’t keep up with rising river levels, and the road began to seriously crumble on Wednesday. Alaska Department of Transportation flaggers with portable lights, and Seward firefighters helped traffic cross that road when it was possible, but when it was no longer possible, Spring Creek Correctional Center employees had to stay at the prison for the night, and all the next day as well.
For the most part, flaggers kept traffic sloshing safely through the deep waters of flooded Seward Highway at Mile 3.5 with a few cars traveling in one direction at a time, their splashy wake obscuring the view of the drowned feed store and frame-store properties.
Before it became too dangerous to stay, heavy equipment operators tried to save areas around Box Canyon’s temporary dike, which had diverted the water’s flow away from the neighborhoods below. It failed anyway, sending a torrent of water, rocks and gravel down to two Exit Glacier neighborhoods below. Families, including several teachers and the high school principal, who lived in homes on Wilma Avenue and Lois Way evacuated, or stayed to fight back waters, even after the power went out. Folks, including Dan Seavey’s clan, were stranded without power for days.
At first the borough road crews, with two pieces of heavy equipment, a D8 and a D9, divided the bulk of their attention between the bridges at Old Mill/Lost Lake subdivisions, and then started working in the streams in the Stoney Creek/Questa Woods neighborhoods, and the dam structure above Bear Lake. But by the evening of Saturday, Sept. 22 the borough emergency services invited those residents to be prepared to evacuate their homes.
Water levels finally subsided Sunday, Sept. 23 and the rain let up, allowing more of the closed roads inside town and out to open, and people to start cleaning up some of the mess, or readying their properties for the next onslaught. Vehicles, soaked by traversing deep water, sputtered and engines died. Generators hummed as they tried to dry out crawl spaces. The city electric department could access Wilma and Lois avenues to begin to fix the power outage.
Wolfgang Kurtz | For The LOG
Water covers the Seward Highway last week. For several days traffic was directed by Alaska Department of Transportation flaggers and only one lane of travel was allowed.
By Monday, Sept. 24, following an afternoon site visit Sunday by Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, even more road crews from the borough had arrived to help work on borough-area flooding streams, and to rebuild the temporary dike at Box Canyon. The crews were finally “gaining ground” in all areas, city officials said Monday night, as yet another storm system approached.
At the regular Seward City Council meeting Monday evening, city officials and council representatives praised the hard work of the many city and borough employees and Metco workers, and the many residents who offered assistance, and food to the EOC members. It was pretty incredible to observe the forces of nature at work, said Ron Long, the Assistant City Manager. But even that was not as incredible as the employees and volunteers, all pulling together to help the city and one another out, he added.