Valdez digs out from world class snowfall

Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 14, 2012 

VALDEZ -- This city feels like a hamster maze.

Eight-foot-tall walls of snow border icy, scraped-clean streets. Around every corner, a piece of heavy equipment is pushing, carrying or blowing snow. An army of workers on rooftops wields shovels against the thick blanket of white, tearing off one massive chunk at a time.

The word "snow" has become just another four-letter expletive uttered in this Prince William Sound hub.

Valdez is known as the snowiest place in Alaska and one of the snowiest in the world, a longtime source of local pride and a basis for well-earned bragging rights.

But with half a winter still to come and history-making accumulation already for this point in the season -- 322.1 inches as of Saturday -- the snow has begun to take a toll on the mental and physical well-being of the hardy residents here.

"Many of us can't see out of our windows," said Sheri Pierce, the city clerk. "My house, when you look at it from the street, it's completely covered. It's a little like living in a cave. It's dark inside."

"This kind of snow season puts stress on people," said Mayor Dave Cobb. "It's easy to get cabin fever."

After 31 straight days of snowfall, the dumping stopped Wednesday. By Friday, the sky was clear and windy, and the nearby mountains shone with sun. The break in the weather is expected to last about another week, allowing the city to catch up.

Some weary residents reported 18- and 20-hour-long days between work and shoveling snow. A local massage therapist says his calendar is filled with appointments due to back and muscle pain -- and because he's had to take time off for the snow at his own home. Local stores are sold out of shovels and snow scoops, so people brought stacks of them from Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Chad Harmon, a tank cleaner at the Alyeska pipeline terminal, cut short his vacation to Florida because his roof was damaged and leaking into his living room. The terminal also needed more manpower to move snow, he said as he got off a plane after six weeks away.

Outside in the parking lot, amid the cars and trucks, sat four towering white blobs -- indistinguishable vehicles apparently owned by others who'd been away during the weeks of snowfall. Harmon said he later found his car buried at home in his driveway.

Day-to-day life has been more difficult lately in Valdez, to be sure. The stories are often downright wacky. But then there are the frightening tales that residents tell, some of them bordering on near-death experiences.

There's the one about the electrician who ran to escape a warehouse on the edge of town when the roof collapsed and the corrugated walls folded in on him. Or the man partially buried in snow that sloughed off his neighbor's roof, crashed through a door and inundated his bedroom while he slept. And his other neighbor, across the street, who just a few minutes later was knocked off her feet when her own roof avalanched.

"It's been crazy, and from what I understand, it's the next two months we have to worry about," said Doug Mason while taking a short break from shoveling a church roof.

The overload forced what is likely the first-ever school closure in Valdez from snow buildup, said Cobb, the mayor, who's lived here for about 40 years. Technicians were measuring the weight on local buildings, and a structural engineer from Anchorage was looking for damage Saturday.

The city put out a call last week for temporary shovelers to first clear the school roofs, then other city buildings, and raised the standard pay from about $16 to a little more than $20 an hour. About 160 laborers, some from Interior and Southcentral communities, had signed up by Saturday.

"People take pride in being able to say they live in 'the snow capital of the world,' and bucking up and doing what they need to do to deal with something like this," said John Hozey, the city manager. "Just the thought of considering asking for help from outside didn't sit well with a lot of people."

Anchorage residents Steve Rideout, his wife, Abby, and the couple's friend Andy Milauskas came to Valdez for the skiing and stayed for the shoveling. The trio signed up to join a snow-removal crew Friday afternoon and were quickly put to work.

"We're going to get a workout and make some money," Rideout said.

Workers were almost done shoveling off the two-and-a-half-acre elementary school roof Saturday, a good thing for administrators, because high school and elementary classes are both set to be held there Monday, in separate half-day shifts. A small crew started cutting huge cubes of snow off the high school roof. The four or five days of work at the high school were just beginning, and as the cleared-out space grows bigger, more men and women will join them on the roof, said city worker Brad Sontag.

Teachers and other city employees were bringing soup and cookies to keep the teams fed and motivated, Sontag said.

"People are getting worn out. That's one thing we've got to watch," he said. "Then when they go home, they've got to take care of their own stuff."

Such was the case for Andy Shidner, though his after-work snow clearing at home began more unexpectedly Thursday morning.

Shidner, a state equipment operator, was plowing snow from the Richardson Highway until about 2 a.m. before turning in for bed, his wife, Cynthia, said. He got an early awakening about 9 a.m., when snow poured off his next-door neighbor's house and crashed through his own garage door, front door and an exterior door and into their bedroom, Cynthia Shidner said.

"My husband was actually in bed, with snow on him, on the bed, and he was trapped because our door opens in, and there was about a foot-and-a-half of snow covering the door," she said.

A police officer and a four-man team from the Coast Guard helped the Shidners dig out, she said. The city also had workers on standby to help residents deal with similar dangerous situations, including buried vents, fuel tanks and precarious snow overhangs above walkways, said Hozey, the city manager.

The hospital reported no injuries related to falling snow or residents slipping off roofs.

Some people are unhappy with the city's response. Lifelong resident Rhonda Wade said the possible impacts from all the snow should not have come as a surprise to city officials, who should have had workers clearing off city buildings, including the schools, far earlier.

"It's frustrating, it's embarrassing, it's disgraceful and it's negligent as far as I'm concerned," Wade said. "The local residents, the local businesses, they kept ahead of it, they've done what they needed to, and the city hasn't."

At a special City Council meeting Friday, councilman Joe Prax said he wanted answers once Valdez was past the "snow emergency," as the city has called the situation.

"If Safeway would've let it get to this point, that they'd have to be closed for a week, the manager would be fired, the district manager would be fired," Prax said.

In a typical year, it isn't necessary to shovel the strong Valdez roofs, built to shed or withstand heavy snow loads, Hozey said. The city was prepared for a normal winter and was caught by surprise by the repeated huge dumps of snow, he said.

If there's something Hozey admits he's neglected, it's the snow atop his own house, he said Friday.

"The whole front piece slid yesterday afternoon and completely closed off the whole front of my house and my garage and everything," Hozey said. "I'm dealing with the city stuff, so my wife called a private loader, and we're on the list."

"We'll just have to climb over the snow pile until they get to us," he said. "It's inconvenient, but it's just life in Valdez."

Video by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News. Contributed photos courtesy the Shidner family.


Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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