In Sitka, the earth moved under our feet in January — like everywhere else in Southeast — but one couple in particular will probably be choosing their campsites pretty carefully from now on.
2013 started with an earthquake, and the wild ride never quite ended. An amazing fishing season plus a surge in industrial activity pushed the regional economy to new highs, but not everyone cashed in — especially those affected by federal budget cuts.
Here’s a look back at some of the top local news stories of the year.
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The natural world often makes headlines in this part of Alaska, and 2013 was no exception. When the dust settled, the January earthquake and tsunami warning were anticlimactic for humans.
for one lucky and fearless dog in Yakutat, the episode went down very differently.
“So the poor dog had been standing on her hind legs in that well for 24 hours, trying to stay alive.”
That’s Ron Buller, talking about his blue heeler mix Tinaa, who fell down a well in the aftermath of the 7.4 quake. Tinaa was rescued.
Humans also managed to get into some water, though it was a little bit hotter. In March, the Sitka assembly suspended municipal administrator Jim Dinley after a personnel complaint. He served out the suspension and subsequently resigned. Former Blatchley middle school principal Joe Robidou’s case is still unresolved. In February, Robidou was indicted on six counts of felony sexual assault based on charges brought by female staff members. Robidou’s trial is scheduled for early 2014.
A pair of Sitka fishermen, Richard Davis and Tyler Westlund, are also awaiting trial, for a September shooting incident in the men’s restroom in the Pioneer Bar. No one was injured in the altercation, but many were surprised. Despite the rough-and-ready personalities in the iconic Sitka watering hole, brandishing firearms is very rare.
Keith Widmeyer was in the restroom when Davis entered.
“When he pulled out the gun, I didn’t waste too much time. I jumped over his head like a rabbit and was scrambling out the door.”
An exceptional fishing year contributed to the boisterous atmosphere on Sitka’s waterfront. Although herring fishermen came up short, salmon trolling for kings and chum was amazing, and the pink salmon return broke state records. Seafood prices and public infrastructure projects created a mini-boom in the region. Economists in September reported that Southeast’s population and payroll had hit record highs. In October, the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau and Sitka Fine Arts Camp hosted the Alaska Travel Industry Association conference — the single largest meeting ever held in town.
But something even bigger came to Sitka.
“It will set on the right abutment here and it will reach all the way across the dam to the left abutment. It is a huge… It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before!”
That’s Electric Department engineer Dean Orbison giving a presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce last February about the Blue Lake Hydro project. Orbison’s powerpoint subsequently was viewed on the KCAW website over 3,000 times. In 2013, Sitka’s Blue Lake Dam became an economic engine. The much talked-about crane — taller than a football field is long — is the biggest in the state. The price tag for the project — $157-million — is the biggest in Sitka’s history. The $10-million widening of Sawmill Creek Road happening at the same time compounded the economic boost. Blasting for that project broke water mains in Sitka at least two times this fall, prompting the local Public Works Department to issue conservation warnings.
A community with over 100 inches a year of precipitation, we weren’t very well prepared to handle a water shortage, as Public Works Director Michael Harmon discovered when he announced the town had a twelve-hour supply.
“You know I heard stories about people filling up their bathtubs and different containers with water. That was just the opposite effect that we wanted to have.”
Despite all the industrial activity, 2013 was not a completely rosy year economically. Federal sequestration touched many agencies in the community — especially the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which was already experiencing budget problems. SEARHC closed programs, including its successful inpatient substance abuse facility — the Bill Brady Healing Center — in April. For Charlie Bean and the close-knit staff there, it was hard to pack up and let go.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve had close friendships and stuff before, but not a group of people like this.
Bill Brady has since been replaced with a less expensive outpatient program. SEARHC expanded its primary care capacity when it purchased the Sitka Medical Center in January. Nevertheless, a number of SEARHC’s long-time physicians and nurses — including medical director Marty Grasmeder — subsequently departed.
And economics — as a statistical tool — is sometimes not a very accurate way to measure how well we are really living. KCAW’s Emily Forman visited the Salvation Army at the beginning of the holiday season, and learned something about Sitka that the economists missed.
Evadne Wright manages the food bank.
“It takes a lot of courage to walk through those doors and admit that you are not doing okay. That you need a hand.”
The Salvation Army distributed 90 baskets of food before Thanksgiving this year, 85 last year. 79 in 2011, and 35 in 2010.
And just as there was struggle in 2013, there was loss. In February, the body of a 13-year-old girl, Mackenzie Howard, was found in Kake. State troopers later arrested a 14-year-old boy for homicide. That summer, KCAW sent reporter Erik Neumann to Kake to get a sense of how the town was healing. He found Mike Jackson, and a culture camp that more than two decades ago helped Kake end a suicide epidemic. The community had experience putting itself back together after tragedy.
“We will never sleep on the idea saying we’re going away from suicide prevention. Our first priority out there is suicide prevention.”
Tenakee also made headlines, as it fought to hang on to its school. Advisory board chair Gordon Chew said that keeping the school’s enrollment over 10 — the minimum for state support — was an ongoing challenge.
“Our outreach to bring families here, and to increase our employment base, and to increase our student count, has largely been successful over the last eight years that I’ve been on the board. We’ve kept the school open against the odds.”
But not this year. The Chatham School District is maintaining the Tenakee school building. All supplies and equipment remains on hand in the event student numbers increase next year.
And what may be the last chapter of the story of Coast Guard helicopter 6017 was written in 2013. Lt. Lance Leone, co-pilot and lone survivor of the 2010 crash that took the lives of his three crewmates from Air Station Sitka, was removed from the Coast Guard promotion list in May by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Leone was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing in a military court, but the Coast Guard command nevertheless decided to terminate the young pilot’s career.
A US senator was watching, though, and she was not feeling good about the outcome.
“I think about people like Lance as being those everyday heroes, who are willing to give up so much to serve. And to never really give up. And I kind of feel our Coast Guard gave up on him — and that’s hard for me to say because I’m a huge, huge fan of all our Coast Guard men and women.”
That’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, during a brief layover in Sitka in August.
Wildlife stories captured much of our online audience’s attention this year. A story about an orphan black bear cub named Smokey, who was rescued in Seward, and sent to Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear, has been shared and seen by over 60,000 people.
A story about an invading dove didn’t go quite that viral, yet managed to touch a nerve — or maybe just my nerves, if David Bonter at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is to be believed.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever heard complain about the song of the Eurasian Collared Dove. A lot of folks really enjoy it. Really appreciate it.”
But the one natural story that tops them all — and, like the Lituya Bay tidal wave, will probably enter folklore — is the day in May that Kevin Knox and Maggie Gallin outran a landslide at Redoubt Lake cabin.
“We were running along the lakeshore and got thrown into the water, trees kind of toppling on top of us. We both popped up about three or four feet from each other, tried to get our wits about us, and hunkered down.”
Knox lost his border collie in the disaster, but there’s already a grassroots movement to name the new body of water formed by the rock fall “Lake Luna.”
Here at the Cable House, we even made a little news: Some human skeletal remains discovered in our basement during renovations in 2011 were exhumed in December. DNA testing identified them as Southeast Alaska Native, and they are likely far older than the century-old Cable House. The bones are now in the custody of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
And finally, a living person left the building. Ed Ronco, our reporter of four years, went on to produce Morning Edition at KPLU in Seattle in October. We were Ed’s first job in radio, and he caught on pretty quickly. He usually carried every story right into the end zone, and in July, in a piece about the Fine Arts Camp production of “Seussical the Musical,” he even managed to spike the ball.
“I hope you’ll forgive me for using this voice/ but when dealing with Seuss one hasn’t much choice/ I promise I won’t make the rhyming a habit/ Reporting in Sitka, Ed Ronco dag nabbit.”
Rachel Waldholz will have some big shoes to fill — especially since we took her thesaurus away.
Thanks for the great news year. We’ll be back in 2014.