Top FEMA official gets Mat-Su flood tour

Zaz Hollander

PALMER -- Visiting Alaska for the first time, the country's top Federal Emergency Management Agency official got a firsthand look at the house-eating Matanuska River on Friday.

Then he got an earful from local officials.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate came to the state to participate in a field hearing Friday at South Anchorage High School on the role of emergency responders in disaster planning.

On U.S. Sen. Mark Begich's invitation, the FEMA administrator spent the first half of the day in the Mat-Su Borough, on a tour of Matanuska riverfront properties in the Butte and in Palmer at a meeting with local officials at the borough building.

Begich chairs the emergency management subcommittee that oversees FEMA. He's also in a closely contested race for his second term, a contest where Mat-Su support could be key.

Begich later said he decided to take Fugate to the Mat-Su because recent flooding and erosion problems show the trouble with a "one size fits all" FEMA approach in Alaska.

Floods in September 2012 forced evacuations in Talkeetna, wrecked several roads in the Susitna Valley and tore through properties along the Matanuska. And over time, nearly 20 houses in Sutton and Butte have been threatened or swallowed by erosion and flooding linked to high river levels.

Erosion is a big problem along the Matanuska, officials say, but isn't covered by FEMA assistance.

"You're waiting for the house to fall in the river," Begich said by phone after the meeting. "Well, that doesn't work out so well."

The borough's emergency manager, Casey Cook, told Fugate and Begich that the borough struggles to get FEMA to sign off on individual assistance programs that can bring up to $33,000 to victims even though many Alaskans live below the poverty line.

"We're getting very dependent on NGOs to help build stuff," he said.

Fugate, who started out at as a county-level emergency manager in Florida, said that FEMA assistance isn't meant to pay to replace a flood-damaged home; that's what flood insurance is for. Decisions about individual assistance are based on a state's population and financial ability to pay for recovery.

"I've had the unfortunate pleasure of having to discuss this with governors when their communities got flattened by a tornado and there's no FEMA assistance," he said.

Borough planning officials on Friday also told Fugate about mapping problems.

A number of residents pay for flood insurance they don't need because of outdated maps originally drafted in the 1980s when the borough's population was much lower, they said.

The borough fielded 841 reports of damage after the September 2012 floods for everything from ruined crawlspace insulation to cabins floating down the river, according to the borough's deputy floodplain administrator, Michelle Olsen. Nearly half of those events occurred outside mapped flood zones, Olsen said.

The outdated status of borough maps isn't fair to people who come to her office asking where to build a house, she said. "We don't have a good answer because our information is from 1985."

After the meeting, Olsen said FEMA and its contractors are working with the borough to update maps, with new ones possible within 18 months, though there are some questions about the technology being used.

Mat-Su Assembly member Steve Colligan, a GIS and mapping expert who owns E-Terra, encouraged Begich to press the state Senate for a $6.5 million appropriation to fund a statewide digital mapping project that's got a $13 million federal match.

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.