Valdez shrugs as snowfall tops 6 feet

IN DEEP: The powder hasn't caused schools to close in more than 30 years, a longtime resident says.

December 17, 2009 

The path into the Valdez Visitor Center is tunnel-like Thursday after more than six feet of snow buried the town of 4,020 people this week.

PEGGY PERALES / NOAA

Go ahead, grumble about the snowstorm that socked the Anchorage area this week. Depending on your side of town, and not counting the Hillside, the official tally is between 5.5 and 20 inches.

Now, put your ear to your freshly shoveled driveway, and you'll hear Valdez residents laughing.

"My God, our people don't even get out of bed for that, and I'm not kiddin' ya," said longtime resident Tom McAlister.

Snow started falling in Valdez early Monday morning and continued to fall like crazy. At one point on Tuesday, 4.8 inches fell in an hour. By Wednesday, 68.2 inches had piled up.

"On my tippy toes I could look over the top of it," said McAlister, who is 5-foot-8.

That makes it the second highest three-day snowfall on record for the town of 4,020, with top honors going to Feb. 4, 1996, when 74.6 inches fell over three days.

But snow deep enough to swallow McAlister wasn't the end of it. As of Thursday afternoon, the inch count was up to 76.5 -- 6 feet, 4.5 inches -- and, though slowing down, snow continued to fall.

McAlister has lived in Valdez 50 years, longer than official records have been kept there, which began in the early 1970s. So the guy has seen some snow. And this week's allotment didn't much impress him.

He had 10 feet piled under his eaves. And it took him 40 minutes of shoveling just to get out of his house. Still, no big deal. You live in Valdez, you cope.

It was kind of a big deal for Peggy Perales with the National Weather Service. This is her second winter in Valdez, and although she was well aware it could be this way, she's had a holy-cow kind of week.

She finds it a little eerie driving around in tunnels. And snow is so deep in her yard, only the top link of her 6-foot, chain-link fence is poking up.

"I'm glad I have well-trained dogs," she said. "They could step right over it, but they haven't."

She did, however, have to do search-and-rescue mission for her daughter's beagle-basset mix after it got pretty much lost in the tunnels the bigger dog had bulldozed through the yard.

John Strang remembers much worse. He was around for Valdez's record snowfall winter, 1989-90, when the city got 561 inches (almost 47 feet). The average is closer to 330. He remembers walking across his yard and looking down on the cab of his truck.

So, by comparison, this week's storm was no biggie, although it was not without its moments.

On Tuesday, after helping with basketball practice, his got his four-wheel-drive pickup stuck three times trying to get out of the school parking lot.

"I thought it was just me, that I wasn't quite ready for Valdez winter driving, until I drove home and saw one police cruiser pulling another police cruiser out of a parking lot, stuck just like I'd been stuck."

This week's storm also racked up a second-place record for the most snowfall in 24 hours. The red ribbon goes to Tuesday with 37.8 inches of accumulation. The record was 47.5 inches on Jan. 16, 1990.

Point is, Valdez gets an insane amount of snow.

So?

In the 33 years Strang has been teaching in Valdez, the schools have never been closed on account of snow. All those years, they've only shut down three times, he said, and that was due to wind.

"I'm telling you," McAlister said, "we have one of the best snow removal crews in the world. Sometimes our street gets plowed twice a day."


Find Debra McKinney online at adn.com/contact/dmckinney or call 257-4465.

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