Land, time run out for Matanuska River buyouts
A federal fix is on the way for Sutton residents whose homes are threatened by erosion on the Matanuska River, but some fear it won't arrive fast enough.
"Everybody wants riverfront property, don't they?" Donnah-Rae Pearson jokes, as she surveys the river's latest encroachment on her land.
The walk to the river from Donnah-Rae and her husband Mike's house used to be a lot longer two years ago.
As the weather warms and glaciers melt, the Matanuska rises -- and residents in Sutton fear for their livelihoods. On Tuesday, the fast-moving waters claimed the lives of a mother and child who fell into the river at a park near Palmer.
July will bring the worst of it, they say, but an electric wire jerry-rigged in a tree after the pole washed away just a few days ago signals the severity of the situation even now.
In 2016, a blue pickup truck floated down the river.
In 2017, a whole house went into the river as the current eroded the bank. Donnah-Rae watched it float by, hoping hers wouldn't be next.
"I get up in the middle of the night and I come out here and check my stick at night," she says, pointing to a stick driven into the bank.
It's the second one she's used. The first already washed away.
The Mat-Su Borough got a $4.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy out 15 residents' properties, but the process is taking longer than residents had hoped.
"There was hope. It was like, 'Oh boy, something's finally getting done,' but it just keeps stalling, and stalling, and stalling," said Donnah-Rae.
Borough Assembly member Jim Sykes, who represents Sutton, says the borough doesn't have the manpower or expertise to complete the federal buyout program on its own. Local leaders tried to hire a project manager, but the feds had a problem with the bidding process which gave preference to local companies.
They're now starting the bidding process over, but Sykes says he's looking for ways to speed up the process. In the meantime, he's hoping the homes left standing can survive one more summer.
"If they can get through this flood season they'll be okay," said Sykes. "It's really heartbreaking for all the stress that it causes, and living not knowing when you'll have to go."
The Pearsons know once their house is gone, there will be nothing for FEMA to buy -- they're hoping the government comes through, before it's too late.
"We may get [a buyout], but I'm not holding my breath," said Mike.
Upstream, the water is rushing by Val and Ed Musial's back door.
"It's all gone. My land is gone," Val Musial says as she looks out her windows.
People on the river blame the borough for a failed dike project they believe redirected the meandering glacial river.
"I think the borough did me a dirty deal," said Musial, "I've been here since 1959 and we never, never, ever had a problem with this river. We had a nice little creek here. I loved the sound of that creek. I hate the sound of this roaring."
Even so, she says she's not leaving. They aren't part of the buyout program.
"Ed and I didn't build this place to sell it out, we intended to die here when the time comes," Musial said.
"If I have to I'll go drag 'em out," Mike says of his neighbors, now in their 90s. "He's not going down the river. It'll be a fight, but I'll try to get him out. They're such nice people."
As for the Pearsons, living here has taught them to stick together, but they say they'll leave if they can.
"We're packing right now," said Donnah-Rae, "I just stand in the living room and say, 'What’s more important to me than anything else?' and it’s very difficult."
They're hoping to take their memories to higher ground before the river claims everything else.
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