Beach Road residents face months of displacement, at minimum
Questions linger about financial assistance and geologic assessment timeline
December 24, 2020
Residents at the southernmost end of Beach Road were officially allowed to return to their properties after state geologists downgraded the area on Dec. 18 from a mandatory evacuation zone to a site to “monitor for future concern.” The determination was made based on computer modeling of potential slide paths if fractured rock at the top of the Beach Road slide area gives way.
“By understanding what areas a variety of simulated landslides could impact if the rock mass associated with the large fracture at the head of the Beach Road slide were to fail, (state geologists were) able to define a line separating sub-areas of reduced and continued concern. (Geologists) believe the area southeast of the modified Beach Road slide boundary is at its normal background (pre-event) hazard level,” a memo released by the Haines Borough Emergency Operations Center (EOC) reads.
The weekend following the announcement, a number of Beach Road residents returned to their properties to winterize homes and carry out belongings. Although the mandatory evacuation has been lifted for houses at the end of the road, access remains limited as Beach Road is still closed and utilities are currently unavailable in the area. The EOC memo suggested residents access homes by water.
Michael Balise was one of the Beach Road residents in the downgraded area who returned to his property over the weekend with the aid of local fishermen.
“(On Saturday) I worked on my house and stayed overnight. On Sunday, I helped a bunch of people taking stuff out of their houses,” Balise said. “We’re in the okay zone, so I wasn’t worried (about spending the night). The geotech team okayed it. I slept well.”
There’s no electricity at the house, so he charged up devices before heading out and used his woodstove for heat.
Balise said he’s contemplating a longer stay at his house in the future, “once the weather and political situation settles down.” He said he feels relatively safe at his property if the weather’s below freezing, or during the height of summer, but would be concerned about staying in his house during a thaw.
While the new boundary has allowed some to return to their homes, there’s a feeling among a number of Beach Road residents that this isn’t much of an improvement.
“Beach Road residents have gone back on their own a number of times before this, so the lifting of this, we feel, has been quite too late,” said Beach Roadhouse owner Todd Winkel, who has been coordinating communication among Beach Road residents and efforts to winterize properties.
Winkel’s property still falls within the evacuation zone. “It feels like your house is slowly burning and you can go in and save it but you’re having your arms held back by the borough,” he said.
For the past two weeks, despite warnings from the borough that there wasn’t enough geologic data to make a determination about whether the area was safe to enter, Beach Road residents have been making trips to their properties to try to winterize before the temperature dropped below freezing.
Winkel said they were able to drain some pipes before they froze, but for a number of houses, winterization didn’t happen quickly enough. “The damage has already been done. Mold and mildew are a huge concern. I went into a house yesterday where the toilets were frozen solid. The washing machine was frozen solid,” he said.
Although visiting homes to remove valuables and assess damage is now sanctioned by the borough for those at the southern end of the road, moving back into houses isn’t feasible for most until utilities are reconnected and road access is once again possible. It will likely be months before this happens as a section of Beach Road—the Dec. 2 slide area and surrounding area that could potentially fall within a slide path if the fractured rock gives way—will remain under mandatory evacuation indefinitely until a more in-depth geologic assessment can be conducted.
“Because (the state) does not have the data or expertise to evaluate the stability of the fractured rock mass, one must consider freeze/thaw activity, heavy rain, snow load, seismicity, high winds shaking trees and other factors as potentially capable of triggering a new slide with no advance warning. A focused assessment by geotechnical experts is needed to fully evaluate the stability of the rock mass and understand the risk going forward,” the Dec. 18 EOC memo reads.
The state and borough Emergency Operations Centers are working with a team of geologists to develop a “scope of work” for a more focused geotechnical assessment of the Beach Road area, according to borough EOC spokesperson Liz Cornejo. Once the scope is defined, the EOC will need to secure funding and contract a qualified engineering firm to do the work.
“More details on the timeline will be known once the scope of work is finalized and a contractor is secured. However, right now we can say that this process is expected to take months, not weeks, to complete,” Cornejo said.
Winkel said there are seven year-round residents’ homes that remain in the mandatory evacuation zone, including his own, and five that are now technically accessible by boat. Residents are left in limbo while they wait for more in-depth geologic analysis, which will inform EOC recommendations about if and when the area is safe to enter.
“We might never be able to go back,” Winkel said. “And in the meantime, we don’t know how to plan our lives.”
For a number of residents, there is a growing sense of frustration about the nebulous timeline for when more geologic data will become available.
“It’s no one’s fault. I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me. It happened. It is what it is, but I don’t feel like we’re moving quickly enough to get this situation taken care of,” said Gary Keller, whose house, which he’s owned since the mid-1980s, is in the mandatory evacuation zone, roughly 120 feet from the Dec. 2 slide area.
As Beach Road residents face the prospect of months without being able to return home, many are asking what kind of financial assistance will become available for needs like long-term housing and car rentals. Most residents have vehicles stranded at the end of Beach Road with no ability to move them until a path through the slide has been cleared.
“What are we supposed to do until spring? My house was paid for but some people have mortgages. They’re paying a mortgage and insurance, and now they have to pay rent, too. It’s not a good position to be in. Supposedly there’s money available, but we haven’t seen it,” said Dennis Franks, whose house also falls in the Beach Road evacuation zone.
“If (the government) won’t leave me alone, then I want the government to take care of me,” Keller said. “If they’re going to condemn the place, I want them to buy me out, or I want them to leave me alone so I can take care of my property.”
Interim manager Alekka Fullerton said the EOC is working to make financial assistance available to residents and to keep a channel of communication open, but questions remain.
“I get it. They’re frustrated. I’m also frustrated. I still don’t understand how they can access the money the community raised through the Salvation Army. I would like to be informed of what’s happening,” Fullerton said.
She said the borough is putting together a committee to look at resources available in the community and figure out how to coordinate services in the most effective way. The borough itself lacks funding to assist displaced residents, and it doesn’t have direct control over how the Salvation Army and Red Cross spend their funds, she said.
Salvation Army Captain Kevin Woods said plans for how to make long-term assistance available to residents are in the works but the process is slow going because it requires coordination between entities including the Red Cross, Haines Borough, and state and federal governments.
“The Salvation Army is going to assist people with their long-term recovery, but there’s a lot of red tape to it,” Woods said. “We want to make sure we’re not duplicating services (provided by other organizations).” He said this means Salvation Army funds may not become available until more is known about what the state, federal government and insurance companies will cover.
Woods said it will take time to sort this out, but he hopes to be able to release more information in the coming days about the process and about steps displaced residents can take to make sure they can access funds quickly once they become available.
The EOC is hosting weekly Zoom meetings with Beach Road residents to keep them apprised of the geologic situation in the vicinity of the slide and give them the opportunity to ask geologists questions directly.
“We are working as fast as we can,” Fullerton said with respect to geologic assessment of the area. She said continued assessment is hampered by snow, although at this point, it’s clear the slide area is still moving.
“Trees continue to come down and move. The tripod we put up for measurement has moved,” Fullerton said. She said she’s not sure which entity is responsible for making a final determination about buying out residents if the area proves unsafe for continued habitation, adding that it’s really too soon to be talking about that possibility.
For now, there’s not much residents can do aside from waiting for more information to become available, she said. Displaced residents should also let the borough know about their transportation, food and housing needs by emailing information to firstname.lastname@example.org, and for immediate assistance can contact the Salvation Army at 766-2470, the Red Cross at 202-937-7163 or the EOC helpline at 766-6445. Displaced residents can contact the Salvation Army beginning on Monday, Dec. 28 for assistance with January rent.
The Beach Road area has remained under mandatory evacuation since a slope failure on Dec. 2 destroyed homes and killed two residents. On Dec. 12, the area’s boundaries were refined to begin where the pavement ends on the town side of the slide, allowing Portage Cove residents to return home.