Empire editorial: City faces partially declared disaster

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2008

As we ponder the future of Juneau's economy, it's useful to think of the avalanches as a metaphor.

Are we financially buried today? Are we looking at the full extent of our damage? Or have we just seen the start of a wide-reaching slide that promises to gain force and grow worse?

The series of avalanches in mid-April knocked out the Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. transmission lines to the Snettisham hydroelectric project and sent Juneau into an energy crisis. But it wasn't enough to notch a full disaster declaration from Gov. Sarah Palin or her Disaster Policy Cabinet.

Officials deemed it an economic issue solved by the burning of diesel for generators, even though that solution sparked an expected 447 percent increase in residential electric bills. This was not a disaster?

On Friday, Palin offered some hope with a stroke of a pen. She signed a letter requesting the Small Business Administration declare an Economic Injury Disaster for Juneau businesses. This could supply federal dollars to small businesses, which would be a great help. And her office said she would announce a "statewide, short-term energy relief plan" next week.

At last, the state is reacting to the crisis, albeit slowly.

The governor's earlier inaction merited a letter from the Juneau delegation, which said, "We believe the Disaster Policy Cabinet erred by defining a disaster too narrowly."

After all, the state deemed it appropriate to aid Matanuska Maid when the state dairy was hit by an avalanche of financial woes. Officials came through with $600,000.

Former Gov. Tony Knowles declared a disaster in 1997 when the Western Alaska fisheries tanked. The state hooked them up with $6 million.

In light of the economic precedents, we think it's fair and appropriate to help Juneau's unfortunate. In light of the hardship faced by our poor and by our small businesses, we think the governor should seek and approve state help. And in light of our lack of light, we don't think we should be kept in the dark - public servants such as Assistant Attorney General Mike Mitchell, who said "Advice to the Disaster Policy Cabinet is privileged," should not be able to hide their thought-processes and decisions from public scrutiny.

This will be more than a three-month crisis for the community. Before the crisis, the brain drain was gaining steam. How many struggling young professionals thinking about leaving town do you think will bolt after that first huge electric bill?

The avalanche of snow was a disaster, but it's the avalanche of after-effects that concerns us now.

Palin's Disaster Policy Cabinet members should visit Juneau and spend a few dark nights acquainting themselves with the challenges ahead of us.

Juneau residents are rightly proud of the conservation efforts, the good faith shown by so many and our community spirit. We may even offer an example for the rest of the nation as we all face catastrophic increases in the cost of energy.

Palin should be here with us.

The state should be with us.

Assistance from the Small Business Administration will be sorely needed and much appreciated. Short-term aid for individuals will be a balm as well.

Nevertheless, a full disaster declaration would help put up a much-needed barrier against the onslaught of problems that so many Alaskans fear in Juneau. We encourage Palin and her Cabinet to ponder the avalanches as a metaphor as they look to the future.

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