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Avalanche-zone residents curious about possible buyout plans

Posted: March 19, 2012 - 11:04pm  |  Updated: March 20, 2012 - 2:35pm

Citizens with homes in two avalanche paths were curious about how City and Borough of Juneau Emergency Coordinator Tom Mattice is planning on mitigating danger — and how potential home buyouts in one zone might transpire.

About a dozen residents of the Behrends Avenue and White Subdivision areas attended a public hearing on the new avalanche mitigation study on Monday night. Mattice went over the mitigation study, emphasizing it does not remap avalanche zones, but looks at how to best mitigate small and large avalanche threats to those areas.

Mattice said this is the first study of its kind funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said typically the agency will fund “brick and mortar” projects that help in disaster mitigation, but the city felt its studies were too out of date to propose a specific project.

The new study looks at a variety of mitigation options for both zones, and gives recommendations and cost estimates on each — or in some cases a need for more geotechnical surveying.

Mattice said it took FEMA 28 months to approve funding for the study.

Mattice said his goal with the study was to find out whether it was feasible to create false releases in these zones to mitigate serious avalanches. Unfortunately for the city, the study concludes otherwise.

Mattice said even though there have been a lot of small avalanches this winter, they have all come from lower points on the mountain. He said that means there is still a lot of snow, and some danger, in the upper starting zones because of the amount of snow and some points of instability.

The study found if they did artificial releases in those areas, it would be fairly likely the blasting would cause a chain reaction in other avalanches. Mattice said they could end up setting off an avalanche where they would not be able to protect the homes.

In the case of Behrends Avenue, the other mitigation options are too expensive to implement — such as creating snow supporting structures. Those structures would need to be 3.9 meters to 6.9 meters in height, depending upon the location. The city would need 10,800 meters worth of these structures and would cost $32.4 million. Another part of the problem, aside from the cost, is the industry standard for the structures is around 4 meters. Also, if the initial cost weren’t enough, those structures would eventually rust and need to be replaced. Ultimately, the report recommended home buyouts in this neighborhood. It ranked zones in priority, 1 through 5.

FEMA, Mattice said, does have funding options to do so. Mattice said eventually the state and city could become stakeholders in this as well, if there is enough citizen support to do so. Mattice said one possibility for city support could be land swaps.

Mattice said the study is not the conclusion they were hoping for, but it is a conclusion with a window of funding. He said he doesn’t want to see a 300-year avalanche event and be talking about buying empty land where those homes currently sit.

Mattice said the plan is to talk with homeowners in priority zone 1 first and gauge their interest. Then the two will come up with what they believe is fair market value and then Mattice would apply for grant funds. An official appraisal will need to be conducted at some point. Mattice emphasized this process is entirely voluntary.

The White Subdivision portion of the study has called for further study on the geotechnical aspects of the upper starting points on the mountain. The company who created the study said with the data available, they were uncertain if snow supporting structures would even be able to be installed because of the mass wasting events up on the mountain. There also isn’t enough historic snow data gathered from that section of the mountain to determine what size and how many structures would be needed.

The study recommended, pending further study, snow supporting structures or berms higher on the mountain with a supporting dam at the bottom. Mattice said with those two efforts, the danger could be best mitigated. Both of those structures also are most effective against wet avalanches. Powder avalanches would still most likely overflow.

Mattice said the study also outlines more forecasting and evacuation suggestions. Mattice said he rates threat on a scale of 1-5, however he rarely goes past 3. He said if it gets to be a level 4 warning, people should be staying off Glacier Highway and, if they have homes in that area, staying with a friend.

One woman said she recalled this same conversation years ago, regarding home buyouts but nothing was done. Mattice said FEMA needed more current studies, so until they were updated the funding window was closed.

Lisa Anderson, a resident in the priority zone 1 in the Behrends Avenue area, asked if FEMA took 28 months to approve funding for a study, how long Mattice thought the home buyout process would take.

“It’s going to take some time,” he said. “It’s not an immediate process. Before I can form a cost benefit analysis, I need to know if I’m talking about one home or three homes.”

He also said they are currently looking at one funding stream, but if there were other options with the state and even city that speed could increase. Mattice said natural disaster recovery funds are allocated on a per-state basis and if a disaster strikes, more funds are allocated to that state for mitigation.

“Our goal is going to move through the process as quickly as we can to put it on their plate,” he said. “Hopefully we can find the money after we perform the cost benefit analysis.”

Resident Susetta Beattie asked what if there are residents in priority zone 1 who aren’t interested in moving.

“This is completely voluntary,” Mattice said. “My job is to find solutions and open the door. It’s your decision to walk through the door or close it.”

Mattice said the entire process of going for home buyouts will be all about baby steps. Everything from determining fair market value to getting funding.

Another resident said it looks like his home is in priority zone 5, and said it sounds like it will be a few years before they get to him.

“My concern between then and now is our forecasting,” he said. “I haven’t heard you go above 3 (threat level). ... That alleviates my fear that I’m going to get buried. How are you going to judge when to get to 4?”

Mattice said he watches the weak layers of snow and watches them very closely as they get packed deeper and deeper into the snow pack. He said the hairs go up on the back of his neck after the snow gets to be 1.2 meters deep and those weaker layers get further down. Mattice said the forecasting is not an exact science, but that’s what he watches for and he uses several different indicators to determine the danger level.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

• Editor's note: This article has been changed to correctly reflect City and Borough of Juneau Emergency Director Tom Mattice's explanation of how federal natural disaster recovery funds are allocated.

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