Alaska News

Sitka disaster declaration expected to help city with costs of landslides

JUNEAU -- Gov. Bill Walker on Friday issued a disaster declaration for Sitka, which was hit with a series of landslides earlier this month following unusually intense rainfall.

The most notable of those landslides struck in the newly developed Kramer Avenue neighborhood, killing three people.

Also damaged in the Aug. 18 landslides were a building at the city's industrial park and other structures on the access roads to the city's hydroelectric dams.

"It's a tremendous cost to us," said Mark Gorman, Sitka's city administrator.

While the declaration ensures some government costs will be reimbursed, it may do little for citizens who have suffered similar losses.

The city doesn't have full cost estimates yet, but Gorman said its emergency response in just the first few days cost half a million dollars. Just reopening access to the Blue Lake and Green Lake dams cost $100,000, he said.

"The cost of this disaster in terms of our budget and our ability is astronomical," Gorman said.


The state disaster declaration will allow Sitka access to the Disaster Relief Fund managed by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

That fund currently has a little more than $2 million in it, according to a letter from Walker to legislative leaders. Walker said he is capping assistance at $1 million for the moment, but the situation in Sitka is ongoing and costs could grow.

Most of the money is likely to go to reimburse local governments, including Sitka and others, that provided assistance, but citizens are eligible for much smaller amounts.

Walker said the assistance program is designed to help local, state and tribal governments, as well as some nonprofits.

Homeowners in the area had borrowed money to buy lots and build houses, which in some cases have been damaged or destroyed, and in other cases are now considered too dangerous to live in.

Property owner Andrew Friske said he and his neighboring homeowners are in a tough situation. Some residents have been forced to evacuate, while others, like him, had not yet moved in, but had made major investments in their new homes.

"We're finding out that there's not a lot of restitution available for any of the damage through insurance and things like that," he said.

The governor's office said some residents may be eligible for individual assistance grants, but the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs did not respond to questions Friday about that program.

The individual assistance grants are designed to provide financial assistance to people who suffered damage or expenses to a primary residence, primary mode of transportation or essential personal property or for medical, funeral and dental needs.

Gorman said the city has only heard a little about the individual assistance program, but it appears to be capped at $16,000.

"We don't know a lot about it, but it doesn't seem to be comprehensive," he said.

Individual assistance teams are expected to be in Sitka next week to provide residents with more information, he said.