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New Jökulhaup flood danger becomes old hat

Vulnerable valley neighborhood nonchalant about looming deluge

Posted: June 24, 2014 - 6:30am
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Karen Keen, 75, shows the emergency supplies she has ready in her "go" bag in case of a flood of the Mendenhall River behind her home: medications, water, granola bars, a radio, and matches. Residents on View Drive are alert to the possible flooding dangers, but are unworried since they have dealt with the situation before in 2011 and 2012.  Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Karen Keen, 75, shows the emergency supplies she has ready in her "go" bag in case of a flood of the Mendenhall River behind her home: medications, water, granola bars, a radio, and matches. Residents on View Drive are alert to the possible flooding dangers, but are unworried since they have dealt with the situation before in 2011 and 2012.

Juneau resident Carol Habeger had never heard of a jökulhlaup, the Icelandic term for a flood of glacial water caused by the bursting of a dam, before July 21, 2011.

“Now, we can even spell it,” she joked in an interview on Monday.

The 59-year-old home school teacher and her neighbors on View Drive were surprised by the first ever jökulhlaup (pronounced YO-kul-hloip) at Suicide Basin above Mendenhall Lake nearly three years ago.

The glacier outburst on that day caused the lake and the Mendenhall River, which winds behind the View Drive properties, to rise to record levels. Water flooded the street, yards, garages and homes.

Property damage ended up being minimal, but the unexpected event caught the neighborhood off guard and a power outage prompted an evacuation. City officials now deem View Drive as Juneau’s most vulnerable neighborhood to flood damage due to what has become an annual natural phenomenon.

“We know where it happens, and it happens there,” Tom Mattice, city emergency coordinator, said Monday.

Jökulhlaups, which occurred back-to-back in 2011 and 2012 when water filled up the glacial lake basin to the point where the ice dam holding it back was forced aside, are now an old hat for the residents of the dozen or so homes on the View Drive. The residential street is located in a quiet wooded area where the multi-storied homes are valued in the $500,000 range and have stunning backyard views of the nearby Mendenhall Glacier. Most of the residents are retired, elderly or well-to-do families.

This time around — another jökulhlaup is expected any day now — the residents are prepared for the impending deluge. They’re even nonchalant about it since they know what to expect based on years past. Officials began monitoring the basin’s water levels after the first incident in 2011 and alert them each year to the flooding danger.

“We just watch the Weather Service website,” said 67-year-old Bob Winter. “They’ve got the lake height information on it.”

Winter built his house on View Drive in 1981 and said he’s experienced minor flooding about five or six times since then, as well as major flooding from torrential rainfall a couple of times. But the first jökulhlaup in 2011 was different because it was so sudden and unexpected, he said.

“It was a nice sunny day,” he recalled.

He and his wife had been out of town and by the time he returned, 21 inches of rain had accumulated in his garage. Some power tools were damaged, but luckily the water didn’t seep into the house, he remembered.

“When I got here, the water had just reached its peak and got just short of the house and started back down,” he said. “By evening, it was gone.”

He shrugged off any concern for the anticipated flooding in the next few days. Officials who have been monitoring the basin’s water levels say the water has been rising steadily about two feet each day since June 16 and the outburst is expected soon. As of Monday night, the basin water level was measured at 42.77 feet. It burst at 52 feet in 2011, although it could burst before it reaches that number.

“It just kind of is what it is,” Winter said. “Still worth living here.”

Likewise, another resident in the area, who declined to be named, said she was unconcerned about property damage despite water rising well into her backyard in 2011.

“In the scheme of things and life, it’s just stuff,” she said.

Seventy-five-year-old Karen Keen isn’t concerned about property damage anymore either. The flood water in 2011 stayed a good eight feet away from her blue and stone home which is raised up on a slight hill on the road, she said.

“I don’t worry about the things in my house getting ruined,” she said. “I just worry about whether or not I can get in and out.”

Keen and her white fluffy dog named Sassy evacuated in 2011 when she were informed the electricity was going to be turned off. Alaska Electric Light and Power had shut off power because one of their transformers was half submerged in flood water on the road. Because city officials did not want people isolated and without power, they placed View Drive under a “soft” closure where evacuation was advised, but not mandatory.

Since the closure was implemented around noon that day and her family and friends were at work, Keen just drove around with her dog in her air-conditioned car for about four hours before she returned home.

“I didn’t know what mall (would) let me take my dog,” she recalled, adding it was no big deal.

This year, Keen is prepared with her “go” bag full of emergency supplies, should she be evacuated again. It includes medication, a flip cell phone, a radio, a flashlight, granola bars, matches, dog food, one day’s worth of clothes and water.

“I’m quite sure that one of my family or friends would take me in,” she said with a wink, adding she has a lot of family in town. “I’m not really worried about it.”

Keen said 2011 was the only time she was evacuated from her home in 35 years due to flooding.

On the other side of the road, Dixie Hood, an 80-year-old former University of Alaska Southeast teacher who is active in city politics and ran as a candidate for the assembly, recalled receiving a knock on the door at 6:30 a.m. on that day in 2011 and being advised to evacuate. She told the Empire she had still been in her bathrobe at the time.

She jumped into action and a friend helped her move furniture and a closet full of photographs she had on the ground level floor of her home. She and the rest of the side of her street evacuated, and she stayed at a friend’s house overnight in the downtown area with her dog and cat, Sunny.

“It wasn’t just a couple of households, it was a major evacuation,” she recalled.

One of the few people on her side of the block that did not evacuate was a man renting the “mother-in-law” apartment on the ground floor of her house, she said. The flood water stayed at bay and only came within three feet of the house.

Hood noted that she had wanted to build her two-story bright red house, which she completed in 1979, closer to the river. Her contractor had warned her against that and told her to build it on higher ground, something she said she’s grateful for.

“Luckily even though the river came up to within three feet of the house, the foundation was high enough so that I wasn’t really at risk, and my renter said, ‘See? I’m good and safe,’” she said.

In case she needs to evacuate again this time, Hood said she has her medication and other emergency supplies close by.

“I could get it all together probably in about five minutes, 10 minutes, max,” she said.

She said she’s not worried about the flooding, since her home wasn’t affected the last two times. In contrast to the jökulhlaup in 2011 and 2012, the water last year only dribbled out over the course of the summer, making it a much less severe event than the outburst floods caused by the water bursting through the ice dam.

The jökulhlaup is expected to be an annual mainstay in Juneau because Suicide Basin is no longer being filled with ice. When the basin fills, it now fills with liquid water, which eventually builds to the point where it can no longer be contained. In these drainage events, the water lifts up the Mendenhall Glacier in order to flow into the lake below.

Despite the dangers this may pose for the View Drive neighborhood, Habeger says she’s not letting it affect her or her family. She lives in the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, closest to the river.

“We’ve been in this house for two years, and when the people that lived here sold it to us, their last words were, ‘Don’t be afraid of the river,’” she said. “And that’s pretty much true.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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