As the situation improves in Haines, officials consider how to rebuild infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather

Crews from Haines, the state’s Department of Transportation and Alaska Power & Telephone work to reconnect power to residents of Lutak Road on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Record-breaking rains opened sinkholes in roads, flooded buildings and triggered destructive landslides in Haines last week. At this point, some quick fixes have been made but major repairs are still far off on the horizon. Local officials are considering how to rebuild infrastructure to withstand more extreme weather in the future.

The rain has stopped and the temperature has dropped. That is very good news for Haines residents.

“At this point, we’re not anticipating anything significant happening in terms of additional landslides or slope failures in the area,” said De Anne Stevens, the Engineering Geology Section chief for the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys. “The weather has been our friend finally, as we’ve gotten to the mid-week and later part of the week.”

Stevens has been helping coordinate the team of geologists responding to the disaster in Haines.

While the large landslide that occurred above Beach Road is still very unstable, many of the other areas of concern have started to dry out and the soil is solidifying.

“We’re in a really good situation now, in particular since we arrived on the ground late last week, and we’re confident that we’re on the road to recovery at this point,” Stevens said.

Much of the critical infrastructure damaged in the storm has been stabilized. Repairs to damaged roads are expected to be completed by Friday.

Haines Borough Mayor Douglas Olerud said the work that has been done so far is just a Band-Aid for the winter until construction crews can rebuild infrastructure starting in the spring.

“I think the engineers and the people on the ground have a better idea on where the shortcomings were in our previous construction, and the goal is now to rebuild in such a way that those aren’t shortcomings anymore,” Olerud said.

The National Weather Service described last week’s downpour as a 1 in 200-year weather event. Weather trends show that Southeast Alaska is experiencing warmer, wetter winters in general.

Mayor Olerud said that the borough will need to consider a changing climate when rebuilding infrastructure.

“It has to be part of the discussion. That’s why there’s the need to make sure we rebuild this to handle it because if those projections are that these events are going to get closer together, how do we make sure that we protect ourselves?”

When the governor declared a disaster for the storm that hit Southeast Alaska last week, the state’s public assistance program was activated to help repair utilities, roads and other critical infrastructure.

Chuck Cubbison with the state’s Emergency Operations Center is in Haines to help the emergency response and relief effort. He said at this point the state’s emergency declaration only applies to public infrastructure.

“We have not yet had a declaration for individual assistance for this event. We are currently evaluating and gathering data on the extent of damages. I’ll be working with my office and we will be submitting that on if appropriate to the governor for recommendation,” Cubbison said.

Currently, the disaster has only been declared at the state level, not federal.

The governor’s office may apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, Cubbison said it is too early for that. His office will wait until after the disaster has ended to catalog the damage in order to apply for enough relief funds. He said as the situation becomes more stable, his office will assess the damage and decide what additional measures to take.

KHNS - Haines

KHNS is our partner station in Haines. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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