Fearing roof collapses under snow, Valdez closes schools

Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 12, 2012 

Heavy snow weighing down roofs has forced Valdez to close its schools for the first time in recent memory, and with the entire city trying to dig out from one massive snowfall to the next, the school district says it is looking for more shovelers to get the schools back open by Monday.

Valdez usually has 151.8 inches of snow by Jan. 12, according to the National Weather Service. As of 2 p.m. Thursday, Valdez had seen a total of nearly 321.8 inches this season.

That's more than 14 feet above normal, and it's starting to weigh on the Prince William Sound city.

The record-breaking winter pushed the local elementary and high school past their legal roof snow-load limits of 90 pounds per square foot, said district superintendent Jacob Jensen. During a special City Council meeting Wednesday, the decision was made to close both schools, as well as the junior high, which was not quite overloaded, with the hope of reopening Monday, Jensen said.

"It becomes a safety issue that they're past structural limits," he said.

In an Alaska winter characterized by extremes, it's yet another entry for the record books: Valdez schools haven't closed due to snow for at least 10 years, probably more, Jensen said. Other longtime Valdez residents say they can't remember another time snow forced a school closure.

"It goes to show that Valdez people are used to snow, so when we close (schools), it's an extraordinary amount of snow. It's a very difficult time right now," Jensen said.

The city was focused on getting the roofs cleared so the schools could open by Monday, Jensen said. Two crews of 20 people each were shoveling a combined 18 hours a day, and the city hopes to add a third crew if it can muster the manpower, he said.

Signs posted around Valdez advertised more than $20 an hour for able-bodied shovelers. The problem, Jensen said, is that everybody in town is busy digging out their own property every day.

"All the contracted snow removal people have been so busy, personal people are having difficulty finding someone to hire," he said.

And though some students have expressed joy at school being closed, an extended closure might mean adding days to the end of the school calendar, Jensen said.

Valdez resident Kathryn Hawkins told the Associated Press the scary part, for her, is it's only mid-January. There are three more months of possible snow in Valdez, and she's not sure where all of it is going to go.

Hawkins said her 12-year-old son, Trevor, has found a positive side to all the snow: He's spending a lot of his free time sliding off the roof into their yard.

Jensen said the piled-up snow is stacked up above many roofs in town.

"A lot of the time, you're shoveling off the roof and up," he said. "It's really hard to believe. ... I'm 6-3 and I can't see out my windows because I can't see over the snow."

Dan Walker, a local massage therapist and school board vice president, said he's been getting dozens of calls for appointments from residents with hurt backs.

"Most people are out spending hours every day shoveling," Walker said.

Some steep roofs have shed snow on their own, but, in at least one case, even that has caused trouble, Walker said: A man told him snow slid from his neighbor's roof, across his yard and smashed into his door.

"He said it bent the frame and blew the door open," Walker said.

A small crew of Coast Guard personnel rushed to the house to dig out the occupants, Walker said.

"The Coast Guard's just been great," he said.

"I think people are really stepping up. There've been a lot of people volunteering over at the school and other local buildings," Walker said. "There is a sense of pride here, like, 'We're the snow capital, we should be able to handle it.' "

There's also a sense of humor about the snow too. In a post on Craigslist, a Valdez resident offered to sell the snow in his or her yard for $10 a load.

"As much as you want. I'll load it you haul it," the ad reads. "I'm tired of it in my yard. Endless supply. Not going to run out anytime soon. ... It's a renewable resource. Email for details."

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