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Juneau sweats over avalanche risk

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Juneau sweats over avalanche risk

Source: Associated Press/Yahoo News


JUNEAU, Alaska - Butch Holst and his wife were thrilled in 1978 when they sealed a deal on a downtown home at the foot of Mount Juneau. Thrilled, that is, until someone showed them a photo of their house in a

National Geographic article that said Juneau has the highest risk of an avalanche disaster of any city in America. "That was our first indication that there was a serious problem," said Janice Holst, a dance teacher and grandmother of 12.

Almost 30 years after moving in, she still gets jumpy when winter sets in. And despite her husband's assurances, a barrage of alerts this year from the city's new online avalanche-forecasting system has been particularly unnerving.

Earlier this week, with record snowfall piled up on the mountain above and a storm in the forecast, the Holsts threw together important papers and clothes and spent the night at their son's house in a safer part of town. Nothing happened.

"Butch is losing his energy to say, `It's not going to happen, it's not going to happen,' and I'm like a crazy, clucking hen running around saying, `Everybody get ready. The sky's going to fall,'" Janice Holst said with a nervous laugh.

More than 60 homes, a busy boat harbor and sections of a main thoroughfare in Alaska's capital city are considered at risk from at least a dozen chutes that sweep off the steep and burly shoulders of Mount Juneau. Small slides let loose all the time, but the only reported death was in 1971, when a mountain climber hiked up into an avalanche path and was buried in a slide that he triggered.

The costliest slide on record, in March 1962, was an airborne blast of powdery snow that blew off roofs, knocked houses off their foundations and hurled trees through walls and windows. No one was seriously hurt, though 17 homes had significant damage.

Specialists say it is only a matter of time before another big one hits Juneau, and it could make the 1962 slide look puny.

But measures such as snow barriers and property buyouts or condemnation have proved beyond the city's financial and political reach. Juneau officials say all they can do is urge residents to stay informed and be prepared to leave their homes if the danger is high.

To that end, the city this year funded an urban avalanche forecasting office

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