Flooding takes out homes and damages others along Juneau's Mendenhall River

Amanda Arra saw about 50 feet of her Juneau backyard consumed by the Mendenhall River in just a few hours as the waters rose to a record flood level Saturday afternoon, Aug. 5. By evening, as a nearby home fell into the river, she feared she was going to lose hers as well.

Her home was still intact at midday Sunday, but about a quarter of the structure was hanging over the eroded riverbank as friends carried her belongings outside the house. Arra had abandoned the home the night before and said there clearly is no way to make the house safe to live in again.

"I'm just shaking like a leaf and I can't think straight, so I haven't even gone in, but they're getting it emptied out," she said while sitting in a chair in her driveway.

Arra is among the dozens of Juneau residents pondering short- and long-term uncertainties, and the implications of the record flooding from Suicide Basin, a glacier-dammed lake near the Mendenhall Glacier. The basin overflowed and released massive amounts of water into the Mendenhall River which runs through residential areas on its way to Gastineau Channel near the Juneau airport.

The most recent outburst from Suicide Basin was in 2016. Officials said this past weekend's flooding was the heaviest release of water from the basin since the cycles began in 2011.

The National Weather Service reported that Mendenhall Lake crested at 11:15 p.m. Saturday at a level of 14.97 feet, well above the previous record of 11.99 feet in July 2016.

The river level had come down substantially by Monday, but the city said river banks remained unstable.

Two structures collapsed into the river on Saturday. Other homeowners said their residences are doomed as they hang over the eroded edges of riverbanks; the city reported it has condemned eight buildings. People whose homes were flooded face the task of repairing spaces saturated by water contaminated with oil and other substances.

Arra, a Juneau resident since 1987, said erosion was never a concern at her home, even during the previous record flooding in 2016. When she got home at about 3 p.m. Saturday, she saw the water was higher than she'd ever seen it, but "I still didn't know it was going to come up so high."

"We sat down there and were just watching it, and all of a sudden trees started to fall in," she said. "And that's when I started to get concerned. Tree after tree after tree, and then (my neighbor's) house started to go - the porch fell off."

Across the river, a house on Riverside Drive fell into the rising waters, although its owners were away and people were able to carry out many of the belongings beforehand, according to neighbors who were scrambling with their own efforts to salvage their possessions.

Marjorie McKeown, living in a house near Arra's, said about 75 feet of land between her residence and the river quickly began eroding Saturday afternoon. At about 5 p.m., she and others began moving everything off the deck that would be consumed by the flooding, and then began removing items from the house as the earth under the foundation crumbled away.

McKeown said she and her husband spent the night in a trailer in their driveway and were continuing to remove items from the house Sunday, assuming it is uninhabitable.

Two buildings in a condominium complex next to the house that fell into the river were evacuated Saturday night. Erosion exposed portions of the foundations.

For residents of flooded homes on solid foundations, the prospects ahead are still daunting.

Bob and Chris Winter, who since 1983 have lived in one of the homes on View Drive that were cut off by massive flooding of the road Saturday, said they raised the foundation of their house three feet after previous record flooding infiltrated their house. Until this year, water never got close to the bottom of their deck.

But on Saturday, it rose a few inches above the deck, flooding the entire first floor of the house and the couple's garage.

"I moved stuff upstairs I really cared about," Chris Winter said. "I didn't get everything out because we did not anticipate it."

When the water receded on Sunday, the couple was left with carpets and floors caked in silt, and saturated by water infused with heating oil from broken tanks and other contaminants. Chris Winter said that damage will mean replacing the floors, damaged parts of the walls, doors and other portions of the house and garage.

Plenty of debris ranging from oil tanks to trees was swept away, washing up ashore farther downstream or after entering Gastineau Channel, some making its way to the shores of North Douglas.

Power, which was cut off to many homes in the flooded area on Saturday to prevent electrical damage, was largely restored early Sunday morning. The shutoff also affected sewage systems in the homes.

Residents of cut-off homes on View Drive, along with friends and others offering help on Saturday, used motorboats, kayaks and other watercraft to bring generators to homes where the power had been turned off, and to retrieve belongings and stranded pets.


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