Ice closes area schools, colleges

Traffic, schools, People Mover all feel effects of wet air mass.

November 22, 2010 

A wet winter storm plated roads with glassy ice Monday in Southcentral Alaska, the Interior and as far north as Barrow, freezing traffic and interrupting life in classrooms and offices across much of the state and some of the miseries are expected to continue.

The Anchorage School District announced late Monday that all schools will be closed Tuesday and after-school activity cancelled. Mat-Su School District already had announced that schools would be closed as well. This morning, the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University called off classes too.

"Rain is predicted to come and go all night long and that's just going to sit on the ice," said Carol Comeau, the Anchorage school superintendant, said Monday evening.

School officials out driving the roads in the Anchorage bowl late Monday found the main arteries in reasonable shape but side streets, sidewalks and bike paths still treacherous, Comeau said.

Conditions were even worse Monday. Alaska Airlines canceled flights. Cars slipped into ditches and banged into school buses. The state shooed workers home early and transportation officials warned drivers away from a twisting, hilly stretch of highway between Fairbanks and Nenana.

Comeau didn't cancel classes Monday but probably should have, she said. Traffic delayed some school buses by 90 minutes or more.

"I really would rethink it now," she said of the decision to hold school as road conditions worsened early Monday morning.

School officials said for more information check Channel 14, the school district website or find the Anchorage School District on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

The storm halted holiday travel as far away as the North Slope, where Devin Morton's hopes of meeting his family for home-cooked turkey in Homer were on thin ice Monday. The 24-year-old project engineer saw his late afternoon flight from Deadhorse -- where he's staying in a hotel -- in limbo.

"I was going to fly back today and then drive back home tomorrow to be home with my family for Thanksgiving," he said. "I don't know if that's going to happen now."

The National Weather Service issued a freezing-rain advisory for Southcentral Alaska through midnight Monday. Anchorage will likely see localized rain today -- a possible improvement over the area-wide freezing rain experienced on Monday, said Sam Albanese, a storm-warning forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

In Fairbanks on Monday the city saw the most rain in a single winter day since at least 1963, forecasters said. Another quarter- to half-inch of ice was expected in the region overnight, said Jim Brader, lead forecaster for the Weather Service in Fairbanks.

Winter storm and ice storm warnings are in effect through today in the Mat-Su valleys and north into the Interior.

"We expect very hazardous driving conditions throughout the day (today)," Brader said.

Fallout from the storm on Monday included:

• Freezing rain and clogged traffic prompted the city to halt People Mover buses for about 90 minutes early in the morning, said city manager George Vakalis. Riders can track the location of their bus online at the Bustracker website.

• By early afternoon Alaska Airlines had canceled at least five flights headed to or from Anchorage and Fairbanks, said spokeswoman Bobbie Egan. Other flights were delayed.

• The University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage canceled classes. UAF called off classes for Tuesday as well.

• The Mat-Su Borough School District closed core area elementary schools and canceled after-school activities. The district also closed all schools for today.

• The state Transportation Department warned drivers to stay away from the Parks Highway between Nenana and Fairbanks, where more than an inch of ice had formed on the winding roadway.

• In Anchorage, police counted 28 accidents -- two with injuries -- and 89 "vehicles in distress" as of 9 a.m., said police spokeswoman Anita Shell.

The Anchorage School District said it would give an excused absence to children whose parents were unable to get their children to school Monday.

The decision to hold classes came early in the morning. School officials had scouted bus routes before 4:30 a.m. The conditions at the time didn't appear to warrant calling off classes, Comeau said.

Comeau said she first heard there was a potential problem later in the morning, when police called about 6 a.m.

"Apparently the weather really changed -- the rain picked up and there was just an awful lot of concern," she said.

But some Anchorage families were already starting their day. Among the choices facing the district: If they canceled classes, would school officials be able to get the word out in time for parents to make adjustments?

Comeau now says a last-minute cancellation of middle and elementary school classes probably would have worked.

"Knowing what I did when I did it, I stand behind my decision, but I want to accept the responsibility also," she said. "Now I feel that, you know, next time we'll do things differently."

Comeau said she talked to dozens of parents about the decision.

"Most of them were frustrated that they didn't hear early enough because they kept hearing about this ice storm that had come in and were quite critical, legitimately, that 'why didn't we know that?' " she said.

Multiple buses were involved in accidents or went into ditches, the School District said. No injuries to students or drivers had been reported as of Monday afternoon, Embley said.

In one case, a vehicle rear-ended a school bus at West 88th Avenue and Jewel Lake Road. Near Begich Middle School, a bus turned to avoid an out-of-control car, smacking a mirror on a light pole.

A school bus also left the roadway at about 2:30 p.m. near Sunset Drive and Jayhawk Drive in Chugiak, sliding into an embankment, said Lt. David Parker, a police spokesman. One student was on board. No one was reported injured, he said.

Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or e-mail

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