The Year in KTOO News: Alaska’s Avalanche Capital

In February, the Behrends neighborhood behind Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé was evacuated due to unprecedented avalanche danger. It was the first time the city’s urban avalanche forecaster, Tom Mattice, warned residents of “extreme” avalanche danger and he knocked on 39 doors and told people to get out. 

There wasn’t an avalanche that night. The city set up an emergency shelter at Centennial Hall, but only one family spent the night there. Most people stayed with friends or relatives in town and one couple got in their motorhome and moved it to another part of town.

Our newsroom decided to look into the history of avalanches in Juneau. We dug into archives and learned about the massive avalanche 60 years ago in the Behrends path that damaged 30 homes, destroying 7 of them. The snow itself managed to stop short of the houses, but the so-called powder blast that came with it — the wind that follows a massive slide — was responsible for most of the destruction.

Aftermath of the 1962 avalanche. (Photo courtesy City and Borough of Juneau.)

There are not great records of avalanches in the area — especially when we’re looking back hundreds of years. But scientists are looking at trees in the area because by looking at tree rings they can reconstruct a timeline of when there have been big avalanches in the Behrends path and other slide zones around town. 

We also talked to people who live in the Behrends neighborhood now to get a sense of how they calculate their risk of living there and how that’s different from how experts or the city calculates risk.

The Behrends avalanche path on Mt. Juneau, taken from Glacier Ave. on February 27, 2021. (Photo by Jennifer Pemberton/KTOO)

We’ll definitely have more reporting on this topic in the new year. The city is currently considering adopting new hazard maps. The maps haven’t been updated since the 70s and based on recent reports, the new maps have roughly 50% of the buildings in downtown Juneau in a moderate or severe risk area for avalanche or landslide. The Juneau Assembly has yet to adopt those maps, and they’ve rejected updates to the maps in the past. The situation with the outdated hazard maps and city code are currently stalling an affordable housing project in downtown Juneau.

Jennifer Pemberton

Managing Editor, KTOO

I bring stories from the community into the KTOO newsroom so that all of our reporting matters. I want to hear my community’s struggles and its wins reflected in our coverage. Does our reporting reflect your experience in Juneau?

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