At home on the avalanche trail: Why Juneauites buy and keep houses in a danger zone

The Behrends Avalanche Path from Block 100 on Behrends Ave. seen south of the intersection of the neighborhood. (Rashah McChesney / KTOO)

Dozens of coveted Juneau homes are being built in an avalanche trail. And decades of studies have pointed to the very real possibility of a major, devastating slide in the neighborhood’s future. But researchers and local residents have different assessments of risk, and a mixture of personal and political decisions keeps people in risk areas.

Janice and “Butch” Holst have owned the yellow house in the middle of their block since the late 1970s. Janice is sitting in an armchair in her cozy, slightly nautical living room.

“We’re a landmark,” she said. “The Holsts on Behrends Avenue.”

Little did they know at the time of purchase that the house they were going to raise their children in was in what National Geographic Magazine once identified as the country’s greatest risk of a major avalanche disaster.

Janice’s husband learned about the risk in the workplace from a colleague.

“He boasted of having found a nice house here. With the schools and four children it was perfect. And this friend said, ‘Really? I do not know why. It is a large avalanche area. You won’t be safe there, ”said Holst.

“And we’ve lived happily here ever since. But we’ve had some scary times. “

Behind her house, the 3,000-foot avalanche slide is bright green with new spring foliage contrasting against the darker, older forest on either side.

When the avalanche danger rose to extremes in their neighborhood last winter, the Holsts left and stayed one night with their grown son. But Janice has no plans to leave home for long. The city has toyed with the idea of ​​a home purchase program, but says they almost wouldn’t embrace it.

“Unless it was a million, trillions, zillions, billions of dollars and a free maid and meals cooked every day. And a mink coat that keeps me warm, ”she said, slapping the armrest for emphasis.

She says they have great neighbors and the avalanches everyone is talking about didn’t harm them.

Lisa Ibias in front of her house on Behrends Avenue. (Claire Stremple / KTOO)

Lisa Ibias lives down the street from the Holsts. Nor did she and her husband know that they were shopping in an avalanche area. The seller, broker, and even their lender failed to mention that the home is on a known avalanche route. She found out from a neighbor after the papers were signed.

She raised six children in the house and says that when there was an avalanche they slept in the basement on the rising side wall. She says she would buy a house if offered.

“If the city wants to buy the house, come and bring it with you,” said Ibias. “I don’t know where I would be moving. But not where there is still an avalanche. “

In danger

In 2011, the city of Juneau commissioned Swiss researchers to carry out a risk assessment for the Behrends district. The report said a large avalanche could run as far as the Gastineau Canal with enough force to destroy timber frame houses on its way.

“When you look at the city and see these huge fields of snow looming over the neighborhoods – I mean, the gentlemen I brought with me from Switzerland and France and other places in Europe look at me and say, ‘We can’t believe that you built here. ‘”Said Tom Mattice.

He heads the city’s avalanche program and is co-author of a study that describes the endangerment of 60 houses, a hotel and a boat harbor in Avalanche Behrends.

The city code shows how seriously the community takes the avalanche danger. In severe avalanche areas, such as the Behrendsweg, the city of Juneau does not allow new construction. No extensions, no in-laws, no new bedrooms. Nothing that would add to the population density of the area.

But Mattice says that right after starting the job in 2008, he launched the idea of ​​buying a home. He says the congregation opposed the city’s cost sharing at the time and decided not to spend the money. Mattice says it’s a hard sell because people who recently moved in knew the risk involved in buying – sellers need to disclose.

Mattice says he wanted to build a wall to protect the houses and detonate landslides in a controlled manner, but that idea didn’t catch on either. Swiss experts said a wall wouldn’t work. And the city can’t force people to evacuate their homes while Mattice’s crew sets off avalanches.

Juneau’s emergency program manager Tom Mattice in his office in April 2021. (Andres Camacho / KTOO)

Mattice says one way to get the city and residents to consider a takeover is if an avalanche causes damage to the neighborhood.

“Because as soon as you turn on the insurance for damaging your home, that could actually be used as a cost sharing,” he said.

“So we could get some FEMA money to buy this property, use that insurance money instead of government money, to pay that local share of the cost, make this homeowner whole, move him out of that apartment and convert it into open parking for ages.” . “

It might sound reckless to wait for a predictable disaster instead of taking action to get people out of the way. But Matisse tried. For a buyout to happen now, the homeowner would have to bring his case to the assembly for approval. He remembers that less than half of the residents were even interested in a buyout. Some people at Behrends think the studies overestimate the risk. One accused Mattice of scaremongering.

Buying a home is not easy

Sherri Brokopp Binder is a community psychologist and independent researcher on the East Coast.

“I am a disaster researcher; I think about disasters all the time. But for the residents, disasters are just one point among many that make up the complex reality of their lives, ”she said.

She studied home purchases after major storms like Hurricane Sandy. And she found that while local authorities see buyouts as a means of prevention, people see buyouts as a means of recovery. That said, most homeowners don’t want to leave a perfect home in a dangerous place. However, they are more likely to consider leaving a damaged home.

“I can look at pictures of a community in the way of an avalanche and think, ‘Yeah, these houses shouldn’t be there,’ right? This is not a good place to build a community. But it’s not my house, is it? It is not my community that we are talking about disbanding. And it’s not my life we’re talking about. “

In the forest behind Behrends Allee, a discarded warning sign leans against a railing. (Photo by Claire Stremple / KTOO)

She says moving house has social consequences – think of the Holsts who love their neighbors – and financial consequences. There is no guarantee of preserving the market value of a home. The housing market in Juneau is tight. If more than 30 households wanted to move at the same time, it would be difficult.

Current city policy offers residents an avalanche warning system – someone who literally knocks on their doors asking them to get out of the danger zone. But while the city won’t accept people into the area, it hasn’t yet invested in a plan to reduce the number of people living in the danger zone. For these residents, the only way out is to sell their homes and transfer the risk to someone else.

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