Climate change, wetter weather could put more Haines homes in jeopardy

State geologists answer questions about instability, landslides, weather and what the future holds on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Last week’s storm and landslides revealed that much of Haines, where there are no building codes, wasn’t constructed with landslide risk in mind. About fifty families had to evacuate their homes last week; another third of town is still on evacuation warning. Experts say that as the climate changes, wetter weather means some homes will become unsafe.

The road down to Teri Bastable-Podsiki’s property is lined with cars. There’s a moving truck packed to the gills out front.

She evacuated last week and has been staying at her ex-husband’s place—with about a dozen family members and 8 dogs. On Tuesday, a group of geologists visited and didn’t like the looks of the new cracks in her walls and plaster. Then, they thought the road shifted. She grabbed her family photos.

Ter Bastable-Podsiki was told her home could slide. Her parent’s wedding rings were among the first items she grabbed. Dec. 8, 2020. (Stremple/KHNS)

“I called my son and asked him to leave work for 10 minutes just to help load it with my son in law. And before I knew it, there were dozens of people here and a moving van and taking everything out of the house. And I’m just, I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude,” she said.

Within an hour and a half it looked like a moving crew had come through her Picture Point property. But it turns out the road didn’t shift. This time.

Bastable-Podsiki’s home is in a zone below Mt. Ripinsky that geologists are calling “the slump.” It’s an area of silt and clay that slides when it is inundated with water.

It has slumped before. Earth movement shifted Lutak Road and damaged the home in 2012. The borough declared a disaster. Engineers from Seattle recommended $1.6 million in drainage updates. But that never happened.

“The mountains are beautiful, but they are also dangerous,” said Ronald Daanen, a visiting geohydrologist for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

When he’s not crunching mountainside data, he’s driving around Haines in a Chevy Astro to measure water pressure, an indicator for mudslides. When it’s high it means there’s pressure building underground. That can lead to a slide.

“What I see around town is a level of unpreparedness in terms of hydrological events. So, a lot of development is going on, people building houses where they think they want to live, which is fine. But all the construction, it seems, has clearly a lack of hydrological understanding of this environment,” he said.

That’s not unique to Haines. Like many rural areas in Alaska, it does not have a building code. It doesn’t have an up-to-date emergency mitigation plan either. That’s a map of potential hazards and a blueprint for how to respond.

Daanen says that even though there are people who know things should be done better, there just isn’t the money to support it. So, even when planners and permitting bodies want to keep people safe, they don’t have the resources to do it.

Brad Ryan used to be the Facilities Director in Haines. He was around while the then-borough planner tried to update the hazard mitigation plan.

“It’s a massive undertaking to understand what the hazards are, when it comes to your small communities, in particular with there’s not a lot of resources,” he said.

“And obviously, we’re in Southeast Alaska, there’s not a lot of things that are developed. So every time to move into a new area, you have to think about another evaluation of the hazards in those areas. So it’s money, it’s people, and it’s also we’re small relative to the area surrounding us.”

The consequences are real. Landslides aren’t what people think of when considering climate change — it’s usually sea level rise and hurricanes. But since the state declared a disaster in Southeast Alaska last week, Daanen says 20 communities in the region have asked him to do aerial surveys on mountains and steep terrain surrounding development.

He says there’s only so much prevention money can buy. And communities often resist building regulation. Even with updated and maintained culverts, a new hazard plan, and aerial surveys, there’s no predicting nature.

For the moment, blue sky reflects off of fresh snow on mountains surrounding Haines. But increased rain and storms — like last week’s — are in the long term forecast.

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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