News from Patrick Flynn

Disaster preparedness

One of the good things that happen when things go wrong is the opportunity to see where room for improvement lies.  Wednesday morning’s awful weather and road conditions provided a good example when an accident on the north end of the A/C couplet closed vehicular access to Government Hill.  I’m still not clear what caused the accident, but I did notice traffic backed up across the bridge around 9 am when I was driving underneath on my way to a meeting.  Whatever the cause, for a little more than two hours no vehicle could get on or off Government Hill without driving through Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Emergency responders have long been concerned about a neighborhood that has, essentially, one access point.  “What if…?” scenarios that envisioned failure of the A/C bridge have noted the surface option through the Ship Creek bowl but this accident, located on the hillside between the bridge and the stoplight at Harvard Avenue & Hollywood Drive, cut off access to and from the bowl as well.  Further, the old back way up Bluff Drive now features a locked gate installed to control access to the vital asset that is the Port of Anchorage.  A long-time friend forwarded me a series of comments from concerned residents (names omitted to protect the innocent):

Hi Patrick,
Here’s the series of emails that went on yesterday – don’t know if anyone called you.  Surely there’s a solution: procedures in place to open Bluff should the bridge/A street up to the traffic light be closed. As I said in my voice mail, folks could not get to work, let alone any emergency or other needs.


I have been watching the bridge for the past hour as traffic has sat at a stand still for inbound and completely void for traffic coming off the hill. Apparently an accident involving a fire truck responding to a call on the hill has had an accident and all access to and from Govt Hill is gone.

If there is a life threatening situation on the hill (and where WAS the fire truck going?) no one can respond. If you are in labor and the baby is coming you cannot get to the hospital. We are basically closed for business.

Stuart Hall would be all over this one! …and we should be too. The back road needs to be opened. Plain and simple. We need more than one access to this neighborhood.

p.s. Traffic is still not moving. I hope all those guys have lots of gas in their cars. And why hasn’t a cop gotten there to clear the bridge by having those folks take the port access and then direct them back to downtown on the other side or thru the port?  That’s what my daughter in law did…….
Good points. The police definitely need Stu to help clear the mess. My wife and I walked downtown, she to work and I to jury duty. It was only after we arrived that the state announced office closures.

What was most shocking on our walk was that no police officer was stationed at the 3rd Avenue side of the bridge to turn cars around. Northbound traffic kept pouring onto the bridge, only to add to the traffic jam. Definitely an oversight, or maybe they were shorthanded. It was 8:30, well into the bridge closure.

Even though it’s icy, it’s still a good day to walk.
My wife called me to let me know of a 9 car accident with a fatality, before I left for work. The cleanup and accident investigation caused the road closure.
That back road has got to be opened routinely when the bridge is closed. Surely the port can handle its security in an emergency. This morning’s situation was ridiculous.

(Editor’s note: Stu Hall was a local attorney who lived on Government Hill for as long as I can remember.  An attorney by trade, he was a tireless neighborhood advocate almost until the day he passed away a couple years back.)
I followed up on the message by getting in touch with, and forwarding the message to, another long-time friend who works in Anchorage’s Office of Emergency Management.  Here’s the response provided to me:
Thanks, Patrick, for contacting me about this concern. 

While this particular road closure did not rise to the level of needing OEM’s support. OEM staff was monitoring emergency radio communication regarding the closure.

As we discussed, emergency and road officials can make a request to the Port of Anchorage to use its roads for alternate access when regular routes are impassable.  If safety and security concerns can be mitigated, the Port is very open to doing whatever it reasonably takes to make this happen.  While I don’t believe this plan is written down anywhere, the question comes up frequently enough that we do revisit the issue regularly with Port officials to make sure we are all on the same page.

After your call, I verified with the deputy port director that we are in fact still on the same page.  In this particular circumstance, however, nobody called the Port. Even if someone had asked, however, I’m not sure how feasible it would have been in this situation concerning the steep grade of the road and the extraordinarily icy conditions. 

In keeping with OEM’s mission, I would be remiss if I didn’t add a preparedness message:

The weather conditions that we have had the past two days combined with yesterday’s situation on Government Hill are a good reminder that we do live in a winter city with many neighborhoods having limited egress/ingress. Thus people should always be prepared for emergency conditions, which includes keeping appropriate outerwear in your vehicle should you be required to walk (as some people wisely did) and having at least a half-tank of gas in your vehicle at all times should you have to wait out an emergency in cold weather.

I hope this response has been helpful.  Please feel free to call me again if you have any further questions.

Since the community council had a meeting that same evening I passed along what I’d learned.  Council members were nonplussed.  What concerned them most was the question of feasibility for using Bluff Drive as several members had distinct recollections that the Port of Anchorage committed to keeping that route ready for emergency access at any time.  What if, they asked, a resident suffered a heart attack and response crews had to be routed through Elmendorf’s Boniface gate thereby suffering significant delays?  I didn’t have a good answer.
Council members further noted, correctly, that one of the challenges in dealing with government is that those in place today may not be aware of their predecessors’ commitments.  To that end they plan to send a letter to numerous municipal officials (Mayor, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Port Director, etc.) revisiting the emergency access issue.  This tale offers two important lessons about vigilance:
  1. Be prepared for emergencies (see the above OEM note, or their web site, for more detail) and
  2. No matter your political philosophy, keep an eye on your government.

Expect more discussion – and more municipal officials – at next month’s Government Hill community council meeting.



This contribution was made on Friday, 16. January 2009 at 02:05 and was published under the category Neighborhoods. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS-Feed.

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  1. What torques off GH residents is that our situation as the largest cul-de-sac in Anchorage is that this problem is well known, and a reasonable compromise had been worked out shortly after we were unceremoniously turned into a cul-de-sac because of “homeland security issues”. The $80,000 red gate is just a rediculous further irritant.

    The agreement was that Bluff Road would be plowed, and maintained in a “ready” status full time by the port, and that fire, police, ASD and ATT personnel would have keys to the infamous red gate, so that WHEN an accident like these takes place, the gate would be opened up, and if there was a true emergency, GH residents would be able to exit GH through Elmendorf.

    That didn’t happen on Wednesday, and it didn’t happen the last time this occurred a couple of years ago. We had something like a 35 minute emergency response time a couple of years ago when the ambulance had to go through EAFB.

    Frankly Pat, we are looking for some leadership to make sure that the next time this happens we have an alternate way off the hill. We don’t need someone to die to get people to follow an agreement that has already been made.


    Comment: Bob French – 16. January 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  2. Below is an e-mail I received from APD after my original post. I’ve added it here after checking with Sergeant LeBlanc:

    From: LeBlanc, Roy
    Sent: Friday, January 16, 2009 4:36 PM
    To: Flynn, Patrick P.
    Cc: Heun, Rob
    Subject: Government Hill Loop Road Closure on 1/14/09

    Mr. Flynn,

    Chief Heun asked me to look into the circumstances surrounding the closure of Loop Road for about two hours on Wednesday, January 14th 2009. I reviewed your BLOG concerning this matter and having family who live in the community I can personally relate to the concerns presented.

    As we are all aware, Mother Nature threw us a curve ball with the sudden warm temperatures and high winds. The resulting road conditions were extremely hazardous and APD responded to multiple vehicles in distress and collisions. My unofficial research shows 215 vehicles in distress, 92 collisions, 13 collisions with injuries. Government Hill was no exception. At about 0716Hrs, a people mover bus attempting to navigate the curve and avoid other disabled vehicles, lost control and struck the guard rail. Three APD Officers arrived at about 0724Hrs to discover 7-8 vehicles disabled in various locations on the curving hill of Loop Road. (Before I continue I would like to explain that while three officers may seem excessive in reality that places one officer blocking each end of the danger area leaving one officer to deal with the collision and all the disabled vehicles.) At 0804Hrs, the officers advised APD Dispatch the Loop Road to Government Hill was shut down. They determined the conditions were too hazardous to open the road until it was sanded. They requested a sand truck and advised dispatch to have the sand truck drive north in the south lanes to get to the curve. If an emergency had occurred on Government Hill before the road was safe to open, emergency responders would have taken the same route, driving north in the south lanes to bypass the section of the road blocked by waiting traffic.

    Ideally it would be best to have blocked the northbound lanes at 3rd avenue; however that would have required blocking the onramp from the port since those stopped at 3rd would have tried the surface option over Ship Creek. This would mean at a minimum five police officers tied to this one incident which is about 1/5th of the on-duty patrolmen. As you can imagine the weather conditions created numerous hazardous conditions requiring significant drain on Department resources. The police department’s priority is protection of life and unfortunately to accomplish this mission occasionally citizens may inconvenience or delayed. Often with Anchorage’s small town feel we tend to forget we are in fact a city 270,000 with all the normal problems a city this size encounters with a few new ones tossed in by Mother Nature.


    Sgt Roy LeBlanc
    Anchorage Police Department

    Comment: Patrick Flynn – 16. January 2009 @ 8:36 pm

  3. Sgt LeBlanc,

    No one disputes the fact that the recent storm created chaos on city streets and taxed APD’s work force. I’ll be the first to commend APD on the outstanding service it provides Anchorage on a daily basis.

    The point overlooked here is the disaster preparedness agreement in place between Government Hill and the City that was not implemented on Wednesday. Had it been implemented, the ensuing delays and traffic jams would not have occurred on the bridge, and some of your officers would have been free to respond to other calls around town. More importantly, first responders would have had a secondary route into our neighborhood had the need arisen.

    It is time we revisit the Bluff Road emergency access agreement and see that it is incorporated into future disaster preparedness drills and in regular training for first responders. This blog is not the proper venue to hold those discussions. Government Hill Community Council is in the process of formally requesting a meeting with all entities involved to review the emergency plan and see that the parties involved are conducting their part of the agreement. You will be receiving a letter requesting that you attend such a meeting in the near future.

    Thomas Pease
    Government Hill Resident

    Comment: Thomas Pease – 17. January 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  4. Pat,

    Thanks for posting this on your blog. The gate definitely has been a sore spot for GH residents. I recall there has been at least 5 incidents since the closure of access for GH residents.

    Oftentimes when there is an emergency and parents need to get their kids quickly (Gov. Hill School & Hillcrest), we have been faced with a base emergency as well. As you can well gather, we base emergency is declared they take extra cautions with each person that goes thru which slows or stops access across the bridge for folks that just want to get their children.

    Since the decision of the road closure, I was continually worried if we had a real disaster (i.e. earthquake, volcano, etc.), how in the world would I be able to get to my children in time.

    The reality of the situation is that they will never be able to get that gate opened in time when we are faced with bridge access issues.

    The discussion needs to be, did they place the gate closure in the wrong spot. If there was concern about access to the Port, it seems to me that the gate should have been put closer to where the Port is vs. limiting the residents to one public road access.

    The military road access option is just not doable for most folks who do not have a pass to get thru. FYI – Every incident the military folks were not aware that there was a bridge access situation and that we should use their road to pass thru.

    Thanks again,

    Melinda Gant

    Comment: Melinda Gant – 27. January 2009 @ 10:46 am

  5. […] I wrote back in January, one of the good aspects about things going wrong is the opportunity to improve upon mistakes.  […]

    Pingback: Patrick Flynn’s Blog » Getting it right | – 20. March 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  6. Disaster Ready Anchorage

    What do you expect in case of loss? Who cares? Who has disaster preparedness/recovery money for that?

    I don’t have all the answers, but I do have this one on disaster preparedness/recovery:

    A letter pertaining to disaster (hurricane, earthquake, tornado, flood, fire, etc.) has been sent to President Obama on behalf of all insurance policyholders. As a matter of transparency on the record of insurance consumer protection, any response by President Obama will be posted on the following Website for review:

    Qui potest et debet vetare, jubet: (Law Maxim)

    Comment: antone braga – 12. June 2009 @ 10:18 am

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