Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Foul weather highlights need for ferries


January 30, 2020

After ferry mechanical issues and record-breaking snowfall over the weekend, stranded residents had to come up with a creative solution to get home.

On Sunday, Jan. 26, there was no way in or out of Haines. Flights had been canceled throughout the week as a storm system dumped more than 50 inches of snow downtown. The Canadian government closed the Haines Highway in response to even heavier snowfall out the road.

The Matanuska ferry, the only Alaska Marine Highway vessel serving communities including Haines, Skagway, Juneau, Petersburg, Sitka, and Wrangell, was the last hope many had for traveling before another storm system predicted early the following week. After a series of delays, the ferry had been scheduled to arrive in Haines Sunday morning but remained in Juneau due to engine difficulties. The vessel is now undergoing repairs and scheduled to resume sailing on Feb. 8, the Department of Transportation said Wednesday after canceling Thursday’s sailing.

While people stranded at home shoveled snow and aided neighbors by plowing driveways, Haines residents stranded in Juneau attempted to find another way home. Many reached out to state Sen. Jesse Kiehl.

“With the intensity of the snowstorms and the pass being blocked, (the need) just continued to build and build,” Kiehl said. Those stuck in either Haines or Juneau included two school basketball teams; the Haines drama, debate and forensics team; numerous state employees; a nurse from the Haines clinic; the local physical therapist; and borough Mayor Jan Hill.

“On Sunday morning I started working the telephones,” Kiehl said. He was not the only one trying to piece together travel arrangements.

Haines and Wrangell schools initiated discussions with Allen Marine, a tour boat company in Juneau, to try to get students home, Hill said.

“A group of Haines refugees got an email chain going, trying to keep updated,” said Travis Kukull, a Haines resident who was stuck in Juneau from Wednesday, Jan. 22 through the following Monday and estimates it cost him $1,000 in hotels, food, and missed employment opportunities. And then late on Sunday, “AMHS took over.”

“I’m not sure folks at (the Department of Transportation) understood how stranded people were” after the ferry was canceled, Kiehl said. “Once they did, they stepped up. They brought some of the Ketchikan central office people in to make sure they had insurance and followed procurement code.”

The department had never before found themselves in this situation, Kiehl said. “They don’t really have policies and procedures for this.” In the past, they had other vessels in service that could be rerouted, he said. However, “the condition of the fleet didn’t allow for that kind of adjustment.”

AMHS chartered a 125-passenger vessel from Allen Marine to take passengers from Juneau to Haines, Haines to Skagway, and then back to Juneau. Department of Transportation spokesperson Sam Dapcevich said he was unable to provide information about the cost of the chartered vessel or any other information relating to AMHS’s decision at this time.

On Monday at 2:30 p.m. roughly 50 people lined up to board the chartered vessel at the Haines Small Boat Harbor dock. The ride was free to all passengers, with preference given to those with AMHS reservations from Sunday’s canceled sailing, said Haines resident Jane Pascoe, who rode from Juneau to Haines on the chartered vessel. Everyone in line in Haines made it on board.

As a Haines resident trying to get to Juneau, Christy Fowler said she tried to stay on top of Sunday’s developments by monitoring Facebook. It was difficult to keep up, she said. “There was so much disinformation.” Fowler had a ticket for Sunday’s canceled ferry. She was supposed to arrive in Juneau in time for a meeting on Monday but was lucky enough to be able to push it to Tuesday, she said.

Sara Chapell, another Haines resident at the dock on Monday, said she was traveling to Juneau to catch a flight on Wednesday. Her original plan had been to fly out of Haines on Tuesday, but as the weather forecast had worsened, she worried that her flight would be canceled and purchased a ticket for Sunday’s AMHS sailing, she said.

Anchorage resident Cody Layton said he had been stranded in Haines since he arrived in town a week earlier with his car. He was on his way to Juneau for work, he said. The chartered Allen Marine vessel could only accommodate passengers and luggage, so Layton was forced to leave his car behind.

“I believe in ferries,” shouted Telise Watkins, a Juneau resident who had been visiting Haines for the past week. “I’ll believe in ferries if this one gets me to Juneau,” shouted a voice farther down the line.

“It’s ironic because I was (in Juneau) to testify about ferries,” Mayor Hill said as she carried her suitcases up the dock. She had been trying to leave Juneau since Thursday after testifying in support of restoring $5 million in funding for the ferry system. She returns to Juneau next week to testify yet again in support of ferry funding. “This time, I’m going to take more changes of clothing,” she said.

The Department of Transportation handled the situation well, Kiehl said, but the current level of ferry service is not enough to accommodate emergencies. “The crucial takeaway is that… we need enough of a fleet running in the winter so that we can deal with an occasional breakdown and storm at the same time. It’s Alaska in the winter. That’s going to happen.”

On Tuesday, the Haines Borough Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution requesting that the state fund the ferry system at a level that allows for predictable service throughout the year. The resolution cites passages from state law that describe the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway to coastal communities and the state’s responsibility to support the ferry system.

“Ferries provide many critical services to small coastal communities, including the only reliable and non-weather dependent means of travel,” the resolution states.

Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League (AML), said advocating for the ferry system is one of the organization’s priorities for the 2020 legislative session. In November 2019, AML approved a resolution in support of a sustainable ferry budget. The organization approved a second resolution urging the legislature to restore an additional $5 million in funding for the current fiscal year, which the governor had originally vetoed in August.

The Alaska Legislature had a chance to restore this funding along with funds for school bond debt reimbursement on Friday, Jan. 24, but both measures failed.

In passing its resolution, Haines joins coastal communities including Gustavus, Homer, Sitka, Seldovia, Tenakee Springs, and Unalaska in calling for adequate support for the state’s ferry system.


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