After smashing records and destroying roads, rain continues to fall in Girdwood

A road has a giant hole through the center of it.
Ruane Road offers the only road access to Girdwood’s critical infrastructure, including the transfer station and the wastewater treatment plant. On Sunday, the road was completely destroyed after days of heavy rain flooded California Creek. (Emily Schwing)

A storm that blew into the Southcentral Alaska on Friday brought with it high winds and heavy rain that soaked the region for days. It led to a landslide that temporarily shut down the Sterling Highway between Cooper Landing and Kenai. And in Girdwood, crews spent much of the weekend working to stabilize local roads that had washed out.

By Monday morning, just under 14 inches of rain had fallen in three days in Girdwood — the most rain since the National Weather Service started keeping track in the ski town, in 1955. Further east, at the Portage Glacier Visitor Center, rain totals surpassed 20 inches.

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“The timing of the flood is terrible,” said Kyle Kelley, Girdwood’s area service manager. “Winter is knocking on the door. It’s November 1st. You never want to deal with improving drainage and all those things when you’re in the fall. You wanna be done and get ready for plowing snow.”

Girdwood’s Fire Department Chief Michelle Weston said she anticipates an emergency declaration from the governor’s office. 

“Given the level of damage to the roads and the fact that it does affect and impact critical infrastructure, hopefully the municipality will, on our behalf, ask for an emergency declaration for some funding to help with the mitigation to improve the roads,” she said.

A spokesperson in Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s office said the city has sent an initial briefing to the governor’s office. Any solution that comes from an emergency declaration, the mayor’s office said, will include funding for road improvements, but the situation “is still under review.” 

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Currently, most of Girdwood’s critical infrastructure, including the transfer station and the lot that holds all of the community’s road maintenance equipment, are inaccessible. So is the wastewater treatment plant. Early Sunday morning, a torrent of water caused a culvert to fail under the road that leads to the water plant, said Kelley. 

He said wastewater staff can walk to the plant on a path that runs behind the facility, but the trail isn’t wide enough for vehicles. 

“There’s no way to get to it right now by road,” Kelley said. 

Luckily, he said, the natural gas line and sewer line weren’t damaged.

“Those are all in good shape,” he said.

But while intact, both the natural gas and the sewer pipe are also entirely exposed. Crews were at work midday Monday to stabilize the bank. Kelly said it will take a lot of dirt to fix the road. 

“We’re working on plans right now,” he said. “One thing we definitely want to do right now is get temporary access in.”

A big hole in a road with water gushing through it.
Ruane Road. (Emily Schwing)

It’s not just Girdwood’s infrastructure that’s now stranded. On Monday, Girdwood residents Sam Trolli and Louise Schum were down to look at what’s left of Ruane Road. They run a business on the other side of the destroyed road. 

“We run a sawmill out of the industrial park down there. And so is our equipment and our tools and our trucks,” said Schum, with half a laugh.

“Everything is stranded on the other side, but we had a pretty good chance to put everything away good before the storm started, but now we’re wondering when we can resume,” said Trolli.

The two said all they could do was wait until the road was repaired to get back to business. 

Echo Ridge Drive is a long, steep and winding road, where about 20 houses are setback in among tall spruce and hemlock trees. A video posted to social media Sunday shows water gushing down the hill. In the video the road looks more like a braided stream. 

“Those residents basically lost their road and were sheltering in place there for a long time,” said Weston, the fire chief.

A river runs rapidly.
Girdwood gets its nickname Glacier City from the creek that runs through the heart of the former gold-mining town. Over the weekend, Glacier Creek swelled to flood-stage and took out the bank alongside one residents’ backyard. (Emily Schwing)

A road crew spent much of the weekend stabilizing the road enough to allow local residents of Echo Ridge to get to and from their homes. 

But the rain isn’t expected to let up soon. It’s in the forecast until at least Wednesday and temperatures are also forecast to drop below freezing later this week.

Girdwood residents say snow is what everyone in town is waiting for — and for the rain to finally stop. 

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