Juneau’s worst glacial outburst flood destroys homes and displaces residents

eroded Juneau homes
The remnants of a destroyed house sit between another house and condo buildings along Juneau’s Riverside Drive, all with eroded foundations after a record glacial outburst flood on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (Mikko Wilson/KTOO)

When the Mendenhall River started rising from this year’s glacial outburst flood, John Loverink was watching from the balcony of his Riverside Drive condo. It’s something he does most summers.

But this year, things were different. By late Saturday evening, the river had swollen drastically. 

“I had no concerns yesterday morning,” Loverink said. “Then I came back after a while, and it was four times as wide as it’s ever been.” 

Juneau’s glacial outburst floods have happened every year since 2011, but this year was the worst by far. The Mendenhall River eroded the bank in a matter of hours, undermining some homes and sending at least one into the river. 

trees in a river
Trees in the Mendenhall River after the Aug. 5 glacial outburst flood caused rapid erosion of the river’s banks. (Mikko Wilson/KTOO)

It’s not clear yet how many homes were destroyed, or how many people have been displaced. But residents like the John and Christine Loverink say they were caught off guard. 

John Loverlink said he started packing in the early evening, after large clusters of trees upstream started coming down. He called his wife to ask her what she wanted to save. 

“He’s normally like, calm, cool, collected John,” Christine Loverink said. “And he was sounding a little bit panicked. So I knew that things were happening fast.”

On Sunday, the Loverinks’ six-unit condominium building was still standing, but one corner hung precariously over a steep drop-off. The neighboring building dangled in mid-air, its foundation swept away in the raging river.

Two condominium buildings condemned

City officials said on Sunday that they had issued a local emergency after the flooding destroyed “at least two structures.” ​​The city’s news release also said other homes were at risk, but it’s not clear how many or where they are.

Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said the emergency evacuations applied only to Marion Drive, but the city didn’t know how many people had left their homes.

“We donʼt know what the compliance rate was,” he said.

a sign
Signs condemning two condominium buildings at 4401 Riverside Drive were posted on the morning of Aug. 6, 2023. (Anna Canny/KTOO)

Some residents were displaced from the Loverlinks’ building and the one next to it — 12 units altogether.  Both had been condemned by the time the city made its announcement. Signs posted on the buildings said they were “unsafe for human occupancy.”

Meanwhile, power had been restored to most neighborhoods as floodwaters receded. But the state Department of Environmental Conservation had asked residents to report any lost fuel tanks – some had floated away in the flood.

Juneau’s worst outburst flood yet

The source of this weekend’s flooding was a glacial dam outburst flood from Suicide Basin, above the Mendenhall Glacier. An update from the National Weather Service described record flooding of waterways and low-lying areas, along with flooding “in areas that have not previously seen flooding before.”

The crest of 14.97 feet was far beyond anything Juneau has seen before from its annual outburst floods, which started in 2011.

“There is no comparison,” said meteorologist Nicole Ferrin, with the National Weather Service in Juneau. “We’re two feet over our last record.”

That record was set in 2016.

a shed flooded by water
Glacial outburst flooding inundating areas around the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center at 7:50 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2023. (Anna Canny/KTOO)

The flood receded as quickly as it came. The lake reached its crest at 11:15 p.m. on Saturday. By 7:30 a.m., the level was down 10.24 feet and still falling quickly.

And at 10 a.m. — when the flood warning was slated to end — the Weather Service wrote that “flooding is no longer expected to pose a threat, but hazards persist in and near the Mendenhall River.”

“Then we started seeing structural timber”

Video shared widely on social media Saturday night showed a white home, just upstream from the condos, falling into the river. 

Bill Ballard lives in a condominium building that’s further back from the bank. He spent much of the afternoon watching the rising, debris-filled waters from a deck chair at the river’s edge. 

Panic didn’t set in until the house collapsed. 

“We saw a couple of decks float by, we saw deck chairs and stuff float by,” Ballard said. “Then we started seeing structural timber. And then I was like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s from houses upstream.’”

By Sunday afternoon, Ballard’s deck chair was propping up caution tape at the river’s edge. More tape was wrapped around the entrances of the two condemned buildings. 

Ballard’s daughter lived in the same building as the Loverinks. After the house upstream collapsed, he helped her to pack up essentials.

“We just got it out before the fire department put the tape up,” Ballard said. “You can’t get in once they put the tape. She’s gonna lose a lot of stuff.”

The Loverinks and Ballard’s daughter are all staying with family for now. They don’t know if or when they’ll be able to recover their belongings.

KTOO reporter Yvonne Krumrey contributed reporting.

Editor’s note: People affected by the flooding who need help now should call JPD dispatch at (907) 586-0600, the city said. Residents with questions about long-term needs or other resources should email floodresponse@juneau.gov.

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