Cordova out of shovels as season's snowfall tops 15 feet

STACKING UP: Homes, buildings damaged by the load on their roofs.

Associated PressJanuary 10, 2012 

Cordova was hit with blizzard conditions Tuesday.

PHOTO COURTESY OF LINDEN O'TOOLE

An Alaska community blitzed by nearly 15 feet of snow was hit by another storm Tuesday and a new problem -- a shortage of shovels.

A spokesman for the city of Cordova said officials had tried Anchorage, Fairbanks and other cities and finally turned to a manufacturer for a special order.

"It's ironic, isn't it? The state of Alaska -- you'd think they'd be ahead of the game. It's those logistical things you just don't plan on, or you don't think is going to be an issue," said Allen Marquette by phone from the city on the east side of Prince William Sound.

The snow-weary city of 2,200 was promised new shovels to be manufactured Thursday and delivered two days later -- but it will be too late for the "couple more feet" of snow that touched down Tuesday, accompanied by winds of 25 to 40 mph and gusts to 55.

The latest storm hit much of Southcentral Alaska. Avalanches along the Seward Highway closed the only route south out of Alaska's largest city, cutting off Anchorage from Girdwood and the Kenai Peninsula. The storm knocked out power to parts of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. Drifts accumulated to 7 feet, Feller said, and the city put out an advisory to boat owners that 16 inches of snow could accumulate and boats should be cleared.

KMXT-radio in Kodiak said flights to the island city had been canceled and three boats sank in local harbors from the weight of snow. In Valdez, the terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline, forecasters issued a blizzard warning through Wednesday afternoon, with winds to 45 mph and accumulations of 9 of 17 inches of snow on the Richardson Highway at Thompson Pass, the road access out of the community.

Cordova, a fishing community famed for wild Copper River salmon, may have been hardest hit. Since Nov. 1, the city has received 176 inches of snow and 44.24 inches of rain, at times increasing the weight of the snow as it piled up to 6 feet high on roofs.

Accumulations on roofs and walls damaged four commercial buildings and two homes, Marquette said.

The threat of such collapses prompted the evacuation of an apartment complex, where weight on the roof jammed doorways and windows, making it a fire hazard, Marquette said. The Red Cross has turned the city recreation center into an emergency shelter.

Dealing with the snow has turned into a near military operation. City, state and federal authorities set up a command center to organize its response to the snow emergency. One task: deciding who gets their roof or entryway shoveled first. The community set up a call-in number to report access problems or roof hazards.

"We're sending out teams to assess," Marquette said. "Everybody thinks it's serious, but you have to go out and assess to prioritize ones that need it the most."

The Alaska National Guard has sent 57 soldiers, mostly to wield shovels. The U.S. Coast Guard contributed at least 20 personnel to clean docks and help maintain heavy equipment.

A "tremendous outreach" of volunteers helped their neighbors clear roofs or clear paths to buildings, Marquette said. But as they perform the backbreaking work of moving snow by hand, they're running through shovels.

"These are big strong people, and so you're bound to have some equipment that gets damaged and broken. So we need to keep replenishing and repairing and getting those back out on the line so they can get the work done."

The city was looking for ice chisels, snow shovels and snow scoops that push snow.

"Those are real handy for flat roofs, and we were short on those," Marquette said. "So what they've been doing is using tarps -- those blue plastic tarps -- and then shoveling snow on them and dragging the tarps to the edge and flipping them off. That's been working pretty well but it would still be more efficient and faster if they could use regular snow scoops."

Coast Guardsman cleared docks at one Cordova harbor and worked on another Tuesday. National Guard soldiers had concentrated on city buildings such as the museum, library and high school and "put a good dent into the situation," Marquette said.

Ice on the city hospital made shoveling hazardous and workers dug from their knees, he said.

Danger from the storm Tuesday kept volunteers off roofs but soldiers worked throughout the day, Marquette said. Shoveling can create a small avalanche on the building, he said.

"You've got so much load on the roof, that once you break enough of it loose, the whole thing cuts loose, and if you're in the path of it, it takes you with it," he said. "It's not unheard of it to get buried in that, and it's just like a regular avalanche, only a small one. But you have a few tons or more of snow and ice coming down -- that's pretty hazardous."

The emergency shelter also was available for people in homes near an area about 5.5 miles from the city that is prone to avalanches. A woman was killed in January 2001 when an avalanche flattened her home.

A weekend avalanche lowered the threat level, Marquette said, but families were asked to evacuate. The current storm could reload the field, he said.

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