Assembly approves access to Beach Road
Residents retrieve stranded cars, possessions
January 28, 2021
Beach Road residents were able to extract cars and possessions from homes beginning Monday at noon after completion of a temporary "pioneer" road through the debris field left by the Dec. 2 landslide.
As soon as Southeast Road Builders area manager Roger Schnabel and his 75,000-pound excavator finished the access road, residents began lining up in borrowed cars and recently purchased vehicles to cross the slide.
In compliance with a safety plan developed by members of the Beach Road community, they checked in with a volunteer at the start of the road closure, signing release waivers and providing their name, contact information, destination (either the red or green zone), and the time they entered. The residents then called a spotter at the start of the single-lane road to make sure it was clear of traffic, before proceeding to the other side in a vehicle for the first time in nearly eight weeks.
"I brought out a bunch of stuff-the rest of my clothes, all of our garbage, all of our food, dog food, anything that might attract the attention of a bear, and then I got as much household stuff as I would need," green zone resident Sally Garton said.
Garton said aside from clothing, the items she was most excited to retrieve were a collection of ceramic pots she uses for her African violets. The violets she had before the slide froze in her unheated house. Garton said she plans to start a fresh batch at her apartment in town.
"We're all very appreciative of the efforts of the assembly to allow us to bring out what we could and our vehicles. It's an amazing opportunity," she said. "Some people might say it took too long, but I understand that they're erring on the side of caution. It's very nice to be able to drive in and get things out while we can."
Until a special meeting on Friday, Jan. 25, the Haines Borough, citing safety concerns, had refused requests from Beach Road residents who asked for a temporary road to access homes.
At a Jan. 8 meeting, state geologists warned that a road through the slide area was risky, as cutting through the toe of the slide could potentially destabilize the area, and a crack in the top of the hillside had the potential to come down at any time without warning.
At the Jan. 25 meeting, Haines Borough Emergency Operations (EOC) incident commander Carolann Wooton recommended the assembly vote down the road proposal, reiterating these concerns.
"Based on the high potential for adverse consequences, the EOC must recommend not approving such proposals at this time," Wooton said. A small slide on the periphery of the Dec. 2 slide path was observed last week, an indication that the area remains unstable.
Despite the warning, the assembly voted 5-1 to allow Schnabel to construct a temporary access road, open to neighborhood residents during daylight hours until Friday, Jan. 29 at 4 p.m. Assembly member Caitie Kirby was the sole "no" vote. Assembly members who supported the road cited the hardships residents have faced being separated from homes, vehicles and the majority of their household possessions for nearly eight weeks.
Mayor Douglas Olerud said what changed his mind, prompting him to schedule the special meeting to consider the road, was the proposal Schnabel put forward and cold, clear weather in the forecast.
"With rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future, there hadn't been a plan presented to the borough that looked like it would work," Olerud said. He said Schnabel looked into various alternatives to a path through the slide, including building a road from the beach on the far side, up to the neighborhood, but Schnabel determined a road through the debris field would be more feasible. This, combined with below freezing temperatures in the forecast, prompted Olerud to schedule the meeting.
Schnabel said he began working on the road Friday afternoon, diverting a creek running through the slide path to allow the area to drain. He said he came close to aborting the job Saturday morning.
"Once I got off Beach Road with the excavator, I realized there was no structure to the fill at all. It was undulating. It was like working on a water bed," he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Engineering Geology Section chief for the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys De Anne Stevens said the ground undulation is likely a sign that water hasn't drained completely from the area.
"The vibration and weight of the moving excavator shook the debris and caused it to lose cohesion, a phenomenon known as liquefaction," she said. "Liquefaction can lead to instability and ground failure, including quicksand-like behavior."
Schnabel said he decided to stick it out until he reached a rise in the debris field with a collection of large boulders. The area proved more stable and he was able to use the excavator to move large rocks and wood debris to create a surface for the road. He then filled in gaps using soil.
Schnabel said he kept an eye on the snow covering the ground as he worked, looking for signs of fracturing, but he didn't see any. He said he drew comfort from past experience building roads and by not thinking too hard about what would happen in the event of an earthquake.
"My profession is to dig the earth. Wherever you dig, you take one scoop of material out of its natural place, weakening the whole slope. We take a real proactive approach, stabilizing the slope as we excavate," Schnabel said. "I knew I was on fairly unstable ground, but here, on this particular project, I felt safer than I have in some other areas."
Schnabel said the road was still a little soft when he finished it Monday morning and had rutted out by the end of the day. He said he's continuing to trim the high points from the road and fill in the troughs, and the road's stability should continue to improve as below-freezing temperatures persist.
Although a number of Beach Road residents are taking advantage of the temporary access road, some are declining due to safety concerns.
"We are in the red zone, so we don't feel safe," Vanessa Wishstar said in an interview Monday. She said she has reservations not only about crossing the slide path but also about spending time packing up possessions in a mandatory evacuation zone. "People did offer to get us our stuff, but for the most part, I declined because I don't want to put someone's life in jeopardy."
Other Beach Road property owners have been unable to take advantage of the road because they aren't currently located in Haines.
The temporary access road will likely be Beach Road residents' only chance to drive vehicles across the slide path for some time, according to Olerud. "The soonest I could see anything changing would be after we get the winter reconnaissance report."
The state is in the process of negotiating a contract with geotechnical engineering firm R&M Consultants, Inc. to study the geology of the area to inform decisions about search and rescue activities, short-term access to houses and whether it's safe to occupy the area in the long term. Once the contract is finalized, the company's first responsibility will be conducting a "winter field reconnaissance" to gather information about site stability.
Interim manager Alekka Fullerton confirmed that the access road won't jeopardize funding for the geotechnical assessment because the road is temporary.
At Tuesday's assembly meeting, a few Beach Road residents spoke during public comment, asking that the assembly continue working to improve access to the neighborhood.
"Please explain why we are taking a step back and cutting the road when we could simply gate it, lock it, and then have access when necessary either at our own risk or at the control of the borough," said Beach Roadhouse owner Todd Winkel, who has led efforts to gain access to the Beach Road neighborhood. He asked that the borough also work on a plan to restore power to houses.
In an interview before the Tuesday assembly meeting, Olerud said the assembly would need to convene another special meeting to allow continued vehicle access after Friday at 4 p.m. As of Wednesday morning, no meeting had been scheduled.
Although the borough is allowing Beach Road residents to cross the slide at their own risk, borough employees, including emergency responders and police, have been told to stay out, Olerud said, adding that the borough won't stop employees who decide to cross on their own time, as volunteers.
A committee of the whole assembly meeting with Beach Road residents is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m.