Whiteout closes highway; wind batters Hillside

Anchorage Daily News / adn.comJanuary 10, 2012 

With a winter windstorm battering Anchorage's Hillside on Tuesday, the state transportation department said the Seward Highway would remain closed south of the city until about noon today due to whiteout conditions, snowdrifts on the roadway and the potential for avalanches hitting the highway.

The highway was closed Tuesday morning from Potter Marsh to Girdwood because of whiteout conditions and two small avalanches near McHugh Creek. Late in the day,, the road was opened from Anchorage to near Bird Creek, but was expected to remain closed between Mile 90 at Girdwood and Mile 100 near Bird Creek, according to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Debris from two small avalanches reached the highway's northbound lane near McHugh Creek early Tuesday. Crews cleaned that up and later fired artillery into mountains just north of Bird Point to release a larger avalanche, said DOT spokesman Rick Feller. The slide covered the entire highway and still needed to be cleared late Tuesday, Feller said. And before traffic could pass through, further scouting for avalanche danger would have to occur during the daylight hours today, he said.

"It's obviously better for all if an avalanche is triggered in a controlled setting while the road is closed to lower the risk for everyone," Feller said.

The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which connects the city of Whittier to the state highway system, is also closed until at least 7 a.m. today, depending on the weather, Feller said.

The Anchorage School District canceled bus routes Tuesday that run along Turnagain Arm. In a written statement, the district said it would reassess the possibility of buses today between Girdwood and Anchorage if the Seward Highway reopened.

Meanwhile, high winds battered Anchorage's Hillside and Turnagain Arm all day Tuesday. A weather station at Glen Alps recorded a gust of nearly 104 mph about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to the weather service.

Hillside residents said they were hunkering down to avoid driving in the blinding snow, and a man in Bear Valley said he was blown from his feet while walking to help a neighbor.

Another man, Bob Sutherland, said he decided to stay at his home near Upper DeArmoun Road after a harrowing drive to town and back Tuesday morning.

"In the span of just a few minutes, the wind kicked up and I couldn't see the road due to the blowing snow ... I just couldn't see the road surface," Sutherland wrote in an email. "The winds are strong and have been gathering force all day."

The highway closures and hurricane-force wind are just part of another powerful storm socking Southcentral and areas to the south in an Alaska winter already characterized by extreme weather.

Areas including Turnagain Pass and Portage Valley, were under a blizzard warning, with snow and high wind possible, the weather service said.

More than a foot of snow fell in Seward -- where the city warned boat owners to shovel their vessels at the risk of the snow causing capsizing -- and 6- to 7-foot snowdrifts were reported around Homer, Feller said.

In Kodiak, the airport was closed due to slippery surfaces from snow melting atop ice, according to the DOT. Marty Owen, Kodiak's harbor master, said huge puddles had formed all over town and the heavy, water-laden snow had caused three local boats -- including a house boat -- to capsize.

Power outages on the Kenai Peninsula, including one near Sterling and the other between Anchor Point and Homer, affected a total of about 110 customers Tuesday morning, reported Homer Electric Association. By 2:15 p.m., HEA was still working on restoring power to three customers.

The Peninsula community of Hope was without power about midday, and a brief outage struck Girdwood earlier, according to Chugach Electric.

Many areas of Alaska were under severe-weather warnings Tuesday morning, with blizzard conditions and heavy snow from Western Alaska and portions of the Interior all the way to Haines and Juneau in Southeast.

Valdez, already hit hard by snow this winter, was forecast to get up to 20 inches, by Wednesday night, according to the weather service.

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