Federal disaster declared to repair Seward storm damage

It can be a long process after a natural disaster to finally get funding on the ground.

On Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that federal disaster assistance is available to the state to help Seward repair major damage to Lowell Point Road, which connects the small community of Lowell Point to the rest of the road system. The storm dates back to December 4, when high tides and a storm surge swept over the road and caused millions of dollars of damage.

“Federal funding is available to the state, tribal and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the severe storm in the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” the announcement states. “Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide.”

The federal government will cover at least 75 percent of the eligible costs for the repairs and hazard mitigation, according to the announcement. Thomas J. Dargan, who was named the federal coordinating officer for federal recovery operations in the area, said in the release that more designations may be made at a later date if more damage is found.

Seward Public Works Director Doug Schoessler said the city has stabilized the road enough to keep it driveable.

“There are some narrow spots when you get down the road … especially with bigger rigs, it’ll be one lane,” he said. “Mostly it’s definitely wider than one lane.”

It was the combination of a full moon, storm surge and high tide that washed out the road, which is blasted out of a rocky mountainside on the western side of Resurrection Bay, Schoessler said. The major washout doesn’t usually happen, though the city did have to clear some rockslides from there this spring.

The road to Lowell Point gets busier in the summer as tourists come and go from campgrounds and boat launches in the area and residents continue to drive back and forth to Seward. The road is in good enough shape for drivers and emergency vehicles to come and go, Schoessler said. Any major repair work will likely be this fall, as the city will have to shut down the road to do it. In the meantime, people should just take care and drive slowly on the road.

“Mainly we’re just going to put some ‘Slow’ and ‘Road narrows’ (signs) with the worst spots out there,” he said. “Most people are pretty good.”

The federal declaration is the result of a long process beginning with the city. Mike Sutton, the director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management within the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly during a worksession Tuesday that the state had been working with the city and borough to finalize the particulars for some time to secure the federal disaster declaration and support.

“We’re already beginning to work with Seward to get that fixed,” he said.

Shortly after the storm, the city of Seward declared a disaster, which it escalated to the borough. The borough recognized it as a disaster that went beyond the borough’s resources to provide for and went to the state, Sutton said. When the problem is larger than the state can provide for, the emergency managers can call in the federal government, as in Seward’s case, he said.

Usually, though, emergencies are first handled at the local level, he said. That includes both cities and unincorporated communities, where the state encourages community members to develop emergency response plans. The state has somewhat limited personnel to help directly and relies on local communities to speed up response, especially because so many communities are in the unorganized borough and go directly to the state for support, he said.

“I have 62 people in my shop and I have a room full of (communications) gear,” he said. “And that’s what I have in order to manage disaster. So what we do, much like what you all do (in the Kenai Peninsula Borough) is we’ve developed relationships with all of those other state agencies, all those folks that do have the resources.”

The borough’s Office of Emergency Management is the secondary resource in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The office handles the borough-wide hazard mitigation plans and alert systems, such as the tsunami alert that went out to peninsula residents in January when a sub-sea earthquake struck southeast of Kodiak.

At the basic level, the state wants to see every citizen of Alaska have an emergency preparedness plan, including supplies and knowledge of what to do in case of a disaster. That goes down to the family and business level, getting people ready to shelter in place and keeping businesses running, Sutton said.

“If I can get every family, every neighborhood, every business and every community in the Kenai Peninsula borough aware of, plan for, prepare for all the disasters and hazards that they face, so that when it happens they don’t need to cal the community and they don’t need to call the borough for help and they don’t need to call the state, then that’s what I’m trying to get to,” he said. “So I’m trying to work myself out of a job.”

Sutton encouraged the borough government to work on its preparedness plans. Office of Emergency Management Senior Manger Dan Nelson told the assembly that the office is currently working on developing a continuity of operations plan in case of disaster so the borough government can keep providing essential services.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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