Flood waters begin to recede in southcentral Alaska

Parks Highway remains closed as displaced residents wait to return

Posted: Monday, August 21, 2006

ANCHORAGE - High water that flooded roads along the main transportation corridor between Anchorage and Fairbanks dropped steadily Sunday as weary emergency officials kept a close watch on forecasts for more rain.

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"We have reports all over the valley of the rivers and streams subsiding," said Clint Vardeman, deputy director of emergency services for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Both the Parks Highway and the Alaska Railroad remained closed between Alaska's two largest cities, as did local roads, and Vardeman said residents would not be returning to homes for at least another day.

The emergency effort remains in rescue mode, Vardeman said. Workers are waiting for water to recede before they can assess damage.

"Most of the (local) roads and bridges are still under water," Vardeman said.

High water sent at least 150 residents from their homes Saturday and sent an unknown number of campers and fishermen in scurrying for high ground, borough officials said.

Heavy rain last week that culminated with 3.7 inches on Friday at Talkeetna caused flooding and bridge damage that closed the Parks Highway, the main road link between Fairbanks and Anchorage. Mud slides and washouts closed the rail link between Alaska's two largest cities.

A home and a cabin were destroyed Saturday and a third home was reported destroyed Sunday, Vardeman said, somewhere along the Little Susitna River.

Water on the Little Susitna was a fraction under 14 feet Saturday night and low-lying subdivisions in the nearby community of Houston, population 1,500, remained threatened Sunday, Vardeman said.

The crest was a foot above major flood stage level and higher than the previously recorded high of 12.5 feet in 1986. The high water reached one lane of the Parks Highway before dropping back.

Borough officials said water from the Little Susitna continued to flow onto King Arthur Road, a major route into the east side of Houston, and emergency responders urged evacuation for anyone who had not already left.

Alaska State Troopers maintained roadblocks for all but local traffic at Mile 121 on the Parks Highway and 38 Alaska National Guardsmen, 17 members of the Alaska State Defense Force and two Naval Militia members maintained roadblocks or filled sandbags near Houston.

Showers tapered off Sunday morning but another storm system was forecast for today, with predictions of 2 to 4 inches of rain.

Sandy Scepurek, a borough spokeswoman, said water had dropped more than 2 feet in Willow Creek and also had fallen at Montana Creek, where much of the worst flooding had occurred Saturday.

Gov. Frank Murkowski was briefed on the damage during a Saturday visit to Wasilla. He had earlier issued a state disaster declaration for the area.

"We made an initial contact with the mayors of the impacted communities yesterday afternoon and offered state assistance," Murkowski said. "With the damage that occurred overnight, we are now declaring the area a state disaster."

A disaster declaration allows state funds to be used to respond to the emergency. Borough officials said their most pressing needs were bridge experts who can assess damage and money for machinery and materials to shore up bridges and roads.

The highway remained closed in part because of damage to abutments at bridges over Troublesome Creek and the Chulitna River, where assessment work continued.

The outlook was brighter for the railroad, barring further rain and washouts, said Alaska Railroad spokesman Tim Thompson.

"We hope to have the main line open by sometime Monday morning," Thompson said.

Crews of 50 to 70 have been repairing track and bed damage, mostly between Talkeetna and Nenana.



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