Danger zones at our doorstep

100 Juneau homes lie in the path of a natural disaster waiting to happen

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2000

Skiers, backcountry hikers and mountaineers get avalanched on. It comes with the territory. But, for a lot of Juneau residents, having a cup of coffee in the kitchen may also be part of that territory.

Last week's avalanches on, and over Thane Road - and down into Gastineau Channel - snapped trees like toothpicks, took out Juneau's power and isolated Thane residents for two days. No homes were in the slide path, or things could have been a lot worse.

There are 17 other known avalanche paths in Juneau that could do worse, because about 100 homes have been built where tons of concrete-dense snow - and the hurricane winds that lead the way - scream down, sooner or later.

On city maps indicating ``severe'' avalanche areas, the Behrends Avenue avalanche path is the most obvious. It covers a swath of Juneau that includes part of the Juneau-Douglas High School and stretches across much of the Aurora Basin boat harbor.

Anything in that area, from Gastineau Channel on up, and in a widening cone as it ascends, is in harm's way.

But according to city maps, the dangerous chutes have the potential of pouring snow, mud and rocks across a much wider area, from the White Subdivision - a mile farther out Glacier Avenue from the Behrends slide - to the tourist shops on the downtown waterfront.


Cleaning up: Workers use heavy machinery to clear Thane Road last week after a pair of avalanches shut down the road.


The League of Women Voters conducted a two-year study it released in 1995 that indicated homeowners don't realize avalanches and landslides could wipe out their homes.

``Longtime Juneauites think everyone knows, but they don't all know,'' said the study's chairwoman, Susan Clark, in a 1997 interview. ``Unless you live in a mountainous area, you don't think avalanche. You don't think mudslide.''

Clark said there was no formal way for anyone to know if they were buying, renting or leasing in a severe hazard area. ``Some years ago (the city) tried to attach a notice on the lease, and there were a few people who got very upset about that, so the assembly backed down.''

The league suggested the city determine clear boundaries for slide zones and indicate them on all land-use planning maps. Notice of the hazard classification should be included on deeds, building permit plans and subdivision plats. Potential tenants or home-buyers would be notified of the hazard zone before being shown the property.

The study recommended that the city:

Educate the public about local geophysical hazards (avalanche, rock and mud slides) on an ongoing basis.

Regulate use and building in the hazard areas.

Notify those who might buy, lease or rent in a severe hazard area.

Prevent or reduce existing hazard danger to private or city-owned lands and properties.

Explore the possibility of rectification (buying the residents' affected properties) as a tool for addressing existing situation of homes currently located in severe hazard geophysical areas.

``Nothing's changed,'' said Clark on Friday. ``We still pretend it doesn't exist. There's no notification of people buying or renting in hazardous areas.''

There are nevertheless some who know the dangers but would contest the proposition that they live in a dangerous area.

Dorothy Tow, 74, lives in a cabin at the top of the White subdivision and remembers well being surrounded by a 20-foot wall of snow that stopped just short of her home in 1985 - twice.

``Those were two big ones,'' she said Friday. ``And the house is still standing.''

She protested mightily that studies have dubbed where she lives a hazardous area: ``But these were spurs coming off the main avalanche, and are nothing like being in the center of the chute.''

Even so, Tow does exercise some caution. ``My philosophy is if we have an avalanche and the chute is full of snow and it starts to rain hard, I might leave for a couple of days.''

Tow thought the studies' designation had decreased her home's value and, in that regard, she said, nothing would be done.

``There's little purpose in writing another big spread if nobody is going to do anything about it,'' she said.

Another who agrees that defining the problem is itself problematic is Roger Shattuck, president of the insurance brokerage, Shattuck & Grummett.

``The designation of `hazardous area' comes from a study the city did on avalanches and mudslides in the '80s,'' he said. ``In my mind, the areas designated mudslide areas were not scientifically arrived at.''

Shattuck's company does not take the hazardous area designation into consideration when it writes home insurance policies, he said. ``I'm not aware of any insurance company that does.''

In its study, the League of Women Voters sought to allay fears of financial loss and dislocation by citing city regulatory involvement in other municipalities chronically threatened by avalanche.

The strongest measures listed were applied in Sun Valley, Idaho, where the city required notice of hazard on all deeds and in ads, notice in writing before showing a house for sale or rent, and even prohibited ambulances, school buses and taxicabs during the riskiest times.

``The measures did not deter owners willing to assume the risk to live in the hazard area, however. Houses continued to be built and property values soared.''

The study cited the residents of Ketchum, Idaho, and Vale, Colo., as similarly disposed.

Though Juneau discourages no one from buying or building in a hazardous area, it does require such construction to be stronger and better engineered than elsewhere.

In areas, such as downtown's Gastineau Avenue, that have been designated as subject to ``mass wasting'' - the downhill flow of mud and rocks - special engineering and heavier construction are required, said the city's Chief of Building Inspections, Steve Chose.

The city adopted those standards in the mid-1980s.

A six-plex under construction on Gastineau - recently destroyed by fire but under construction again - features open-walled parking beneath the structure that would allow the flow of detritus through without damaging the building.

``It would take out the cars,'' Chose said. ``But it would save the building.''

The building, along with others under construction, also features concrete structures facing uphill that are designed to deter the mud and rocks.

One of the problems with trying to educate Alaskans about the hazards of building and living in these zones is their generally libertarian attitude, said Bill Glude, director of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

``If you own a piece of property and you live in an avalanche zone, well, that's your choice, is how the attitude goes,'' Glude said. ``The problem is when we have a big slide. We could easily have 100 people killed. Then this libertarian philosophy goes out the window.''

The immediate need is a good response, he said, along with warning systems to let people know there's been a slide - since if there's been one, the likelihood of another is increased.

Glude also recommended further study of defense structures such as erecting berms or ridges of natural material in avalanche paths, so as to slow things down.

In the long term, ``the city needs to think about giving people a standing offer to buy them out,'' he said. ``Residents should have that opportunity.''

``Alaskans are maturing,'' Glude said, registering optimism that city authorities will take steps to minimize the hazards to Juneau's citizens.

Reminded that Anchorage has - after years of contentious debate - OK'd the development of new subdivisions in its Earthquake Park are, the place most devastated by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, Glude said, ``Well, Anchorage is more adolescent than Juneau.''

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