Fierce winds close port at Valdez, batter town

100 MPH: Siding blown off buildings, windshield wipers ripped from cars.

February 27, 2011 

Hurricane-force winds have forced a shutdown of the port where Alaska oil is loaded onto tankers.

The National Weather Service said Sunday there were multiple reports of flying debris shattering car windows and siding blowing off buildings in the Prince William Sound town of Valdez, where the port is located. No injuries were reported.

The winds peaked at 95 mph Saturday, prompting the port closure. A high wind warning remained in effect.

It was even windier at Thompson Pass, where the Richardson Highway passes through the Chugach Mountains. Cars got stuck in deep snowdrifts and 100 mph winds ripped windshield wipers from vehicles.

It's uncertain when the port will reopen, but Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. terminal remained in operations except for vessel loading. Oil from the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline is being stored in tanks.

Alyeska operates the pipeline, which stretches from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

By early Sunday, just a little over a quarter of the facility's storage capacity was being utilized, according to spokeswoman Michelle Egan.

"We're not in the type of situation where we would be looking at shutting the pipeline any time soon," she said. "There are many days of room remaining."

The pipeline operates at less than one-third capacity from its peak of 2.1 million barrels per day. The Alyeska terminal has a storage capacity of 8.7 million barrels, Egan said.

The winds had settled to about 10 mph, with a 65 mph gust blasting through the town, said Peggy Perales with the National Weather Service office in Valdez.

"They're all over the place," she said, adding the winds were expected to flare up again, with gusts in the 80 mph range. The high wind warning will be in effect through Monday evening, she said.

Perales said no oil tankers were in the port. Instead, vessels were waiting out the weather in a safe harbor of the sound.

Egan said port closures in Valdez are not unusual. Perales, however, categorized the current conditions as out of the ordinary.

"It's an extended event, and we don't normally get winds this high," she said. "It's not an every-winter event."

Valdez residents are used to strong winds, but the latest bout even got the attention of old-timers like Matt Kinney, a backcountry ski guide who leads excursions near Valdez and in Thompson Pass.

"It's been a while since we had a good blow," he said. "Yesterday's wind event was a significant event."

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