Juneau awaits disaster declaration from state

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin's Disaster Policy Cabinet is scheduled to meet this morning and may make a crucial decision on whether the governor should issue a "disaster" declaration in response to Juneau's power crisis.

"The state's disaster declaration is critical," said Kevin Simpson, legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Simpson, a Juneau native, handles energy, natural resources and other issues for Stevens.

Juneau may not qualify for a disaster declaration, however. The Disaster Policy Cabinet has met before without taking action.

Avalanches cut the power transmission line between Juneau and the Snettisham hydroelectric project in mid-April, forcing the city to switch to expensive backup diesel generators.

The Cabinet consists of top state department heads and is chaired by Gen. Craig Campbell, commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she was hoping what was going on in Juneau would qualify as a disaster.

"I'm hoping for a declaration, because it certainly is a crisis for our community," she said.

Campbell said after the last meeting that it was not clear whether economic issues alone could qualify Juneau for disaster assistance. Residential power rates in Juneau have jumped from 11 cents per kilowatt-hour to more than 50 cents per kilowatt-hour with the switch to diesel generation.

Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. has been struggling with the repercussions of the avalanches since transmission towers went down April 16, company spokeswoman Gayle Wood said.

She said a disaster declaration would likely help the community, but she didn't know whether Juneau would qualify.

"I wouldn't want to raise expectations and hopes, but it would be a wonderful gift if something like that was out there," she said.

Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders said that a disaster declaration could make it possible for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration to provide help in Juneau.

Low-interest loans, or even grants might be possible, he said.

Kerttula said several state agencies that might be able to help have already been contacted by Juneau leaders and are checking to see what they may be able to do with or without federal help.

"If it doesn't happen, I don't want people to panic," she said.

City and state officials are doing everything they can to find assistance for Juneau residents, whether or not there is a disaster declaration, she said.

"If this doesn't get approved, we'll do everything that we can to try to get extra assistance for our neighbors," she said.

The Governor's Office is authorized to spend up to $1 million on emergencies, she said, and agencies such as Health and Human Services have been looking into what programs they have available.

The Juneau Assembly will meet again at 5 p.m. today to consider spending $3.25 million on a loan to AEL&P and for energy conservation measures.

Kerttula said it may take a package of help from state, local and federal governments to deal with the crisis.

Saunders said the Alaska Congressional delegation would find ways to help with or without a declaration. A U.S. Department of Energy expert has already been in Juneau to offer advice after Stevens passed along a request from Mayor Bruce Botelho and Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

"It's very obvious that regardless of that declaration, Juneau needs help," Saunders said.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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