Authorities assess damage after flooding from glacial dam outburst in Juneau

Raging waters that ate away at riverbanks, destroyed at least two buildings and undermined others.
Published: Aug. 7, 2023 at 10:53 AM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Raging waters that ate away at riverbanks, destroyed at least two buildings and undermined others continued to recede Monday in Alaska’s capital city after a glacial dam outburst over the weekend, authorities said. In total, eight buildings were left condemned, including two condominiums that each had six units.

Levels along the Mendenhall River had begun falling by Sunday but the city said the banks of the river remained unstable. Onlookers gathered on a bridge over the river and along the banks of the swollen Mendenhall Lake to take photos and videos Sunday. A home was propped precariously along the eroded river bank as milky-colored water whisked past. The city said it was working to assess damages. Property damage is expected to be at least in the millions of dollars.

On Monday, local engineers and contractors assessed the condemned properties to see if repairs can be done to make them habitable in the future. At this time, City and Borough of Juneau officials say they don’t have a timetable for when the work will be complete. Any repairs that are feisible will most likely take months to complete.

“It is of course most concerning to the people who are directly impacted by losing their housing and having to find a different situation very rapidly,” Robert Barr, the Deputy Manager for CBJ, said.

The city is advising people who are doing repairs to their properties or accruing expenses due to the disaster to keep their receipts in case assistance down the road becomes available.

CBJ said there have only been minor injuries reported at this time. No people are missing, but CBJ did mention one family is potentially missing a car.

Such glacial outburst floods occur when glaciers melt and pour massive amounts of water into nearby lakes. A study released earlier this year found such floods pose a risk to about 15 million people around the globe, more than half of them in India, Pakistan, Peru and China.

Suicide Basin — a side basin of the Mendenhall Glacier — has released water that has caused flooding along the Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River since 2011, according to the National Weather Service. However, the maximum water level in the lake on Saturday night exceeded the previous record flood stage set in July 2016, the weather service reported.

Nicole Ferrin, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that while it’s not uncommon for these types of outburst floods to happen, this one was extreme.

“The amount of erosion that happened from the fast moving water was unprecedented,” she said.

Water levels crested late Saturday night. Video posted on social media from the flooding showed towering trees falling into the rushing river as a home teetered at the edge of the bank and eventually collapsed into the river.

The city announced early Monday afternoon that the CBJ Community Development Department has authorized emergency bank stabilization to address property and safety concerns as the riverbank remains unstable.

Officials are still asking that people avoid the riverbanks.

“In many places, the slope from the top of the bank to the river is gone, it’s just a 90-degree drop,” Barr said. “So, last night had a rescue situation where our fire department team needed to go out and pull people out of the river. So we are asking people to stay away.”