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Fairbanks North Star Borough Embraces Hazard Mitigation

FAIRBANKS, AK — Public officials in the Fairbanks North Star Borough have a lot of experience with disaster planning, preparation, response and recovery. Extreme cold weather and frequent flooding are all-too-familiar challenges. They’ve also found that through a team effort it’s possible to reduce risk to life and property by taking action to eliminate future damage.

In some areas along the Tanana River and Salcha River the almost yearly ice-jam floods during spring break-up are incredibly hazardous. Homes have been inundated with water to depths as great as 7 feet. Evacuation and rescue efforts put a strain on Borough resources and personnel. One effective approach has been to help people get out of harms way before the hazard occurs.

In early 2005 the Borough filed a successful application with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and emergency Management (DHS&EM) to obtain funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to acquire 10 properties in the Sewell subdivision near Salcha. The homes and other Fairbanks North Star Borough permanent structures were either purchased and demolished or relocated to safer locations. The vacated homesites are now in permanent public ownership.

Another approach to safety is to elevate homes out of the way of water and crushing ice flows. This requires careful engineering and construction of a sturdy (and expensive) new foundation system, and a way to protect the building from erosion.

These and other hazard mitigation projects often require a lot of help from community officials in the departments of planning, finance, permitting, emergency management and floodplain management. State of Alaska and Federal grant programs demand an impressive amount of documentation to ensure the appropriateness, eligibility and cost effectiveness of the proposed investments in risk reduction. Detailed accounting and record keeping are another part of the behind-the-scenes, yet critical work.