SITKA, Alaska — While researching landslide preparedness in Sitka, RAND Corporation investigators have found a shared concern among Sitkans about the future of housing availability in the community.

Researchers Ryan Brown, Rob Lempert and Katie Whipkey made their second trip to Sitka earlier this month under a yearlong planning grant from the National Science Foundation’s “Smart and Connected Communities Program.”

The project is carried out in coordination with the Sitka Sound Science Center’s Sitka GeoTask Force and the City and Borough of Sitka.

The goal of the RAND study is to lay the groundwork for another NSF grant that would fund a multi-year research project to enhance public understanding of landslide prediction in Sitka and strengthen the city’s warning and response processes.

To glean a clearer understanding of the work ahead of them, the researchers held public discussions last Wednesday evening and Friday morning to hear from Sitkans about their hopes and concerns.

“I think one of the things that struck us was that the community is very concerned with balancing the short-term needs to protect lives and opportunities with the long-term need to make sure Sitka is viable, that there’s housing available,” Brown said in an interview with the Sentinel.

Residents worry that, if Federal Emergency Management Agency mapping indicates certain areas within the Sitka road system are at risk of landslide, there would be restrictions on building or living in the newly identified zones.

He explained citizen concerns about housing, as it relates to landslide issues, fit with what he’d heard during his first trip to town, although he was surprised to learn of its prevalence and urgency.

“That was definitely new for us, at least in terms of its priority,” he said.

He added that, while the researchers may be able to help local stakeholders determine the risks at hand, in the end, it will be up to Sitkans to grapple with the possible effects on the housing market.

“The community itself will have to figure out how to respond to those effects, if there are any,” he said. “It’s the American way: we’re a nation of free will, and if you want to take risks with your own life, you’re allowed to.”

THE HUMAN FACTOR

The RAND researchers explained that their approach straddles physical and sociological sciences, taking into account the characteristics and concerns of the population at risk.

The researchers’ first trip to town focused primarily on geoscience, but on this visit they sought to tap the deep well of residents’ shared knowledge to ensure that the multi-year grant is “co-designed through the community,” Brown said.

Brown said an understanding of the human element at play is crucial to landslide preparedness, although it may be even harder to predict than the landslide itself.

“One thing that’s unpredictable in response is reaction,” he said. “You can’t just engineer a human response.”

Warning systems work best, he said, when they cause the anticipated reaction, which can be molded through public education and based on the preexisting instincts and concerns of the community.

In addition to the public opinion sessions, the RAND team conferred with representatives from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the Assembly, the Sitka Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, Sitka School District, local real estate brokers and others.

“We were collecting as many insights as we could. Were we to get the follow-up money, we would continue with that,” he said, adding that his team might expand on community conversations with oral history documentation and formal opinion surveys.

CHALLENGES SPECIFIC TO SITKA

The trip’s focus on the people in the community allowed Brown to observe indications that Sitkans are still reeling from the rain-triggered Kramer Avenue landslide of August 2015, he said, as the traumatic incident continues to affect the way in which Sitkans perceive the risks associated with possible landslides.

“The community has an ongoing sense of anxiety every time it rains,” he said. “The community is still grieving and thinking about the Kramer slide.”

So, too, he was able to discern the diversity among Sitkans’ personal histories and hopes for the future, which make “a one size fits all” approach impractical.

“There are really different tolerances to risk across the community. Not everyone has the same aversion to or ability to take risk,” he said. “There really is a variety of preferences in the community, and that will be a challenge moving forward.”

A third factor contributing to Sitka’s vulnerability is the city’s geographic isolation.

People have expressed concern, Brown said, about “connection to the outside world” in the event of an emergency, because a breakdown in communication could make problems worse.

Maneuvering around slides could be another challenge, Brown added, as members of the public could be forced to take to boats to skirt affected areas.

FUTURE PLANS

The researchers’ application for their next grant is due on Feb. 28. If approved, the funding would provide for three to four years of collaborative work with geoscientists, computer scientists, engineers, and education experts focused on deepening the Sitka public’s understanding of the processes behind the prediction of landslides and of appropriate action in their wake.

The RAND Corporation team hopes to “help citizens think in an informed way about risk,” Brown said, and has already begun to lay the groundwork to include the Sitka School District in developing this educational component.

“As humans, we’re just bad at thinking about risk,” he explained. “Individual access to information will be a big emphasis.we heard that – from citizens, from builders – a lot of the solution may be in just making sure people are properly informed about the risk.”

In addition to the educational component, the RAND team may incorporate “novel engineering processes” into their work going forward, such as large-scale stabilization of hillsides, Brown said.

They’re also considering smaller measures, such as rain gauges people could install in their homes to receive real time data about rainfall.

The researchers hope to build on their categorization of the type of landslide Sitka faces – “fairly large, but also fairly shallow slope failures” – with an understanding of the amount of rain necessary to initiate such a slide, as well as the slope that puts an area at risk.

Right now, Brown said, the team is still assessing what methods might be most appropriate – and most viable financially — for Sitka.

“It’s very wide open at the moment,” he said.


Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/