My turn: Safety is primary, if we build the road

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

This column centers around snow and land-mass avalanche problems that pertain to the much debated road from Juneau to the Katzehin River, an area which is loaded with both. Juneau received much publicity as being the "Avalanche Capitol of the United States" and toying with the Lynn Canal will certainly reinforce this image.

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I have lived in Juneau for 88 years and have been able to witness and appreciate the tremendous impact of a land-mass avalanche on South Franklin Street that killed 14 people when I was a young man. This was also at a time when constant snow avalanches were a yearly occurrence on the Thane Road south of Juneau. Human lives were lost and the property damage was extensive. Huge avalanches have occurred on Mount Juneau and in the Basin Road area throughout the years, with some near misses of human targets.

I have had extensive avalanche training in Juneau and in Sun Valley, Idaho. While working with the Sun Valley ski patrol in 1939, four skiers lost their lives. Ten hours later, we dug out their bodies. They died from suffocation (not a pretty sight). Those who don't respect avalanches would soon get the picture if they were involved.

I have followed the Lynn Canal road project from its start, and the Department of Transportation has furnished me with all of its extensive written material. I often wonder what the huge price tag is for this. A document from 1991 included substantial information on snow avalanches, but nothing on land-mass ones, which also can be a major problem. It was easy to detect that DOT did not want to focus on this activity as it is extremely difficult and costly. I have spent a lot of time studying this information and have discussed my findings with at least two of their personnel.

I received additional documents on April 27 and found some startling facts. The cost for snow sheds is $11.2 million, and avalanche chutes 20 and 21 need sheds. This would cost more than $22 million for just those two locations. After close study, and trying to be conservative, I find a minimum of 13 avalanche paths that should have snow sheds. Some of the sheds would only cost $2.8 million to $4.2 million.

The expensive area is a 1,600-foot expanse for the sheds. The others have a distance of 400 to 600 feet. Other worrisome areas are avalanche chutes, two of which have a maximum width of 2,115 feet. This area was not shown with a cost estimate.

From all my study, I detect that DOT doesn't want to use snow sheds simply because it will increase the cost. These snow sheds are recognized by leading avalanche experts in the world as the best method to provide as much safety as possible.

DOT would plan helicopter placement - firing a 105 mm howitzer from Anyaka Island. But, as we have witnessed in the Thane shooting, this has a very limited success rate.

The use of a howitzer is also "iffy," due to winter weather, which affects the use of helicopters to take personnel to these few locations. It takes a minimum of seven people each time this method is used. DOT reports very emphatically spell out that weather forecasting in this area is very difficult.

It is plain to see that with all of the above snow avalanche problems, they don't want to consider land-mass operations, which weather forecasters will tell you can happen anytime we have six inches or more of precipitation in a concentrated period of time.

To sum all this up - maintenance and rescue cost, which receive no federal aid, will be substantial and only very rough estimates can be given at this time. Where will all this funding come from? It will be interesting to see the bids from the construction firms, especially if this project is going to be done a section at a time.

Essentially, if we build the road, we should make it as safe as possible.

• Dean Williams is a resident of Juneau.

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