Families affected by Juneau’s flood rebuild or reassess as recovery efforts drag on

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Amy Ballard stands on the balcony of her condo, overlooking Mendenhall River. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

The sound of the nearby Mendenhall River fills the room as Amy Ballard sits down in her condo for the first time since evacuating last month. 

Six weeks ago, Juneau’s record-breaking glacial outburst flood threatened to send her home into the river, along with the rest of her condo building on Riverside Drive. But on the inside, Ballard’s unit still looks untouched and cozy. 

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Amy Ballard’s twins on the day of the glacial outburst flood. (Photo courtesy of Amy Ballard)

There’s a clutter of high chairs, baby books and a small pile of unfolded onesies in an armchair by the front hall. The wall is decorated with photos from her trips to Jamaica, Monaco and France over the years, but this condo has always been her home base. 

“I’ve loved this place,” Ballard said. “And I’m saying this in past tense. Because it feels weird now.”

Ballard can’t bring herself to sleep here. For her, and many who were affected by the flood, the fear feels fresh

And six weeks out, recovery is just beginning. Some homeowners are figuring out how to rebuild. Others, who don’t have a home to return to, are reassessing completely.

Ballard moved into her unit five years ago as a first-time homeowner.

“It was a big, big deal for me to own my own place,” Ballard said.

She had hoped the place would be home to her growing family. On the day of the flood, she celebrated her twins turning seven months old.

But later that night, she had just 15 minutes to grab the twins and some essentials as the enormous force of the water rapidly eroded the riverbank beneath part of her building. 

The building is still standing, but what used to be a huge backyard is now just a strip of grass — about five feet wide — with yellow caution tape propped up along the edge. 

The day after the flood, Ballard’s building and the neighboring building were condemned by the city. Her building was then quickly deemed safe again, after rock fill was installed to stabilize the riverbank. Though many of her neighbors have moved back in, Ballard has been hesitant.

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The enormous force of the flooded Mendenhall River sloughed away the land under Amy Ballard’s condo building. The building has been deemed safe by the city, but Ballard is hesitant to move back in (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

For now, she and the babies are keeping cramped quarters with her parents, who live in a condo across the parking lot. 

“Life feels transient and not settled,” Ballard said. “And I don’t think it’s gonna feel settled until I have a new place.”

But she’s in financial limbo. Like many of her neighbors, Ballard was denied a payout from her insurance company. State disaster assistance may provide some money, but she hasn’t heard any official word on her application since she submitted it last month. 

Meanwhile, she’s still paying a mortgage, property taxes and homeowner association dues for a home she no longer feels safe in. 

“I don’t have money to put down in another place,” Ballard said. “I mean, most people do not have money to just dump into fixing their places after a natural disaster.” 

Ballard, along with every member of the Riverside Condominiums Homeowners Association, is also on the hook for $20,000 to continue repairs on the still-condemned building and to armor the riverbank. The goal is to fortify the property against future glacial outburst flooding. 

Ballard said it won’t be enough to keep her there. When she bought her third floor unit, with a balcony overlooking the river, it felt too good to be true. But when the construction work is done, she hopes to sell it and move on. 

“There’s just too much trauma for me,” Ballard said. “I think my perception has changed. You can’t fight nature. Nature’s gonna win. Right?”

Rebuilding land by hand

All along the Mendenhall River, restoration work has begun. A crew of river rafters clear downed trees from the water below Ballard’s balcony. And on the opposite bank, a truck dumps massive boulders that pile up on the river’s edge.

Upstream, a long stretch of the riverbank in Joe Pagenkopf’s neighborhood now lined with riprap. Pagenkopf’s property on River Road is filled with gravel and 150 dump trucks’ worth of sand, piled up around the foundation of his house. 

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Property owners have already installed tons of rock to fortify the bank along River Road, just downstream from Mendenhall River Bridge. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

Pagenkopf had just finished paying off the mortgage when the flood eroded away his backyard.

“We had all these plans to landscape. And I’m glad we didn’t,” Pagenkopf said. “We’re giving our lawnmower away. No more lawn to mow.”

As the water subsided, about a third of the house was left hanging off the bank. He and his wife considered it a total loss, until a contractor told them it might be salvageable. They started the work right away.

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Joe Pagenkopf, 64, spend about four hours a day packing sand to rebuild the land under his house. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

“I’m a task-oriented person. So I focused on the task,” Pagenkopf. “I don’t think I’ve taken more than about a 24-hour period off working on the house. And it’s been mind-bogglingly hard.”

Contractors put in a new wall and a set of pilings, which stabilized the building enough for the Pagenkopfs to move back in. But the bank is only partially restored. It sits much lower than it used to, and their house is still suspended. 

So Pagenkopf has been rebuilding the land by hand. He crawls under the house each day with a small shovel. 

“This is my sandbox,” he said, while hunched over under the house, in a space that’s less than four feet tall. One side is filled with a firm mound of sand that Pagenkopf just finished building.

“Bit by bit, I’m shoveling over there and packing it in and then just moving my way this way,” he said.

For hours each day Pagenkopf kneels under the house, shoveling sand, wetting it down and packing it tight to fill in the space. It’s grueling work for the 64-year-old.

“It takes me a while to stand up straight,” he said. “I’m vaguely hominid when I come out.”

Even though he’s taking on much of the work himself, the cost for contractors and materials is staggering. Pagenkopf had to cash in on his retirement savings to foot the bill, which he estimates will come out to around $150,000.

The restoration is far from over. It’ll take at least two more weeks to finish the fill. And Pagenkopf said the real test will come with next year’s glacial outburst flood. 

“The one thing this jökulhlaup proved is that there is no complete,” he said. “There is no certainty.”

But for now, Pagenkopf said he’s grateful that he was able to save his home.

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Joe Pagenkopf’s yard is filled with sand that he’s using to rebuild the land he lost in the glacial outburst flood on August 5, 2023. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

A waiting game

For Elizabeth Kent, there’s nothing left to save. Her home on Riverside Drive is the one that thousands saw collapsing into the river in a viral video.

Kent wasn’t home when the house went in. She’d been renting out the house, and those renters were out of town when it came down.

Meanwhile, Kent and her husband were thousands of miles away. She’s been working as a teacher in Nicaragua, on sabbatical from her job as a teacher in Juneau. Her coworkers saw the video on Nicaraguan news channels.

The flood destroyed the house, and everything in it. For Kent, the days immediately after were chaotic and filled with grief. 

And it also was very hard to find, like what you’re even supposed to do,” Kent said. 

Kent and her neighbors along the riverbank helped each other to figure out what numbers to call. Kent spent her free time calling her insurance company, her mortgage broker, the city and the state. Many of those calls left her frustrated.

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Elizabeth Kent’s garage still stands on the edge of the riverbank. She and her family lost nearly all of their possessions when their home collapsed into the Mendenhall River on August 5, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Kent)

“I think all of the different agencies I’ve called, probably like half of them, I ended up breaking down crying,” Kent said. “And once you’ve exhausted all the numbers, then you’re in a waiting game.”

Her insurance company has denied her claim, and her mortgage company has not given her any clear answers, as she continues to make payments on a house that’s no longer standing. 

There’s also no clarity about how much assistance she’ll get from the state. Kent said several officials have told her to hold out for FEMA, but she says she’s not holding her breath for federal aid. FEMA is facing a funding shortage after devastating disasters like the deadly wildfire in Maui and Hurricane Idalia in Florida last month.

Kent’s been spending a lot of her time thinking about how people in those places will be able to recover.

“It does make me realize that, oh my gosh, all the disasters I’ve ever heard about – this is what happened to those people afterwards,” she said. 

For now, Kent is still in Nicaragua. She’s not yet sure when or how she’ll rebuild back in Juneau.

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