'It was like a war zone'

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 5, 2012 

Thousands of homes and businesses in Anchorage and Mat-Su remained without power Wednesday as residents recovered from an overnight storm that blasted the region with high winds, uprooted trees and tore down electrical lines.

Roughly 6,000 Chugach Electric customers, 3,000 Matanuska Electric Association and an unknown number of Municipal Light & Power households still did not have electricity as of about 2:30 p.m., the utilities said. The companies hoped to restore power by Wednesday night but said some families and businesses may have to wait until Thursday.

No serious injuries had been reported as of noon Wednesday.

The storm arrived unusually early in the season, catching leafy trees like kites and yanking roots from rain-soaked soil before it was frozen.

"Nobody here can remember a storm this strong, this early in the season," said Shaun Baines, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Anchorage.

Airlines diverted flights to Fairbanks and an iconic, 100-foot-plus wooden flag pole, thick as a barrel, snapped on the Anchorage Park Strip, cleaving a tree on the way down. The Anchorage School District and University of Alaska Anchorage canceled classes as utility crews roamed neighborhoods, clearing tree branches and inspecting power lines.

Trees smashed cars, fences and, in some cases, houses across the city. The sound of chain saws filled neighborhoods. ML&P General Manager Jim Posey said he woke up to find a 50-foot aspen had fallen on his Ford F-150.

On the upper Hillside, wind gusts topped 100 mph around midnight before the sensor lost power, according to Weather Service forecaster Joshua Maloy.

The Weather Service recorded gusts of 88 mph at McHugh Creek and 63 mph at the Port of Anchorage.

The agency, on its Facebook page, circulated one "unofficial" wind report clocking gusts at 131 mph in the Glen Alps area. The Weather Service hasn't verified that number and can't vouch for the instruments used to record it, said Baines, the Anchorage meteorologist.

The Weather Service's equipment stopped reporting wind speeds at Glen Alps and McHugh Creek -- two areas that often see the greatest wind in an Anchorage storm -- early Tuesday night. That's because power outages or the wind itself likely knocked the instruments offline well before the storm reached its zenith, Baines said.

Between 7 p.m. Tuesday and 7 a.m. Wednesday, the Anchorage Fire Department responded to roughly 500 calls, said spokesman Al Tamagni. The department responds to only 50 to 80 calls on a typical night. Fire officials had to prioritize because there weren't enough resources to respond to all of them right away.

"The calls were mostly trees on (power) lines with arcing and sparking," Tamagni said. "We had a few tree and transformer fires."

In some cases firefighters used chain saws to clear roadways, he said. There were no major fires, he said. Tamagni was out before dawn, driving down Lake Otis Parkway, he said. The wind was howling, trees were down and power lines were sparking.

Despite the blackout, Anchorage residents turned to their smartphones and social media to describe the "pop" of blown transformer fuses heard across the city.

"It was like a war zone," Tamagni said.

A majority of Municipal Light & Power's Anchorage-area customers lost electricity at about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday when two major transmission lines went down within a 10-minute span, spokeswoman Ronnie Dent said.

"The backup to the backup failed," she said.

The power company serves downtown Anchorage, the university district and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, among other areas. Dent said Elmendorf was one of few customers that did not lose power.

Electricity had returned to most ML&P households by 5 a.m. Wednesday, according to the utility.

Falling trees and branches cut power to another 25,000 Chugach Electric customers.

The DeBarr Road area of East Anchorage was among the hardest hit, but outages blackened neighborhoods across the Anchorage Bowl.

"We had a portion up on the Hillside. ... We had the Boniface area. We had some out in the Raspberry area. We had Turnagain. Huffman. They were scattered throughout," said Chugach spokeswoman Sarah Wiggins.

Many of the 6,000 customers who remained without power Wednesday afternoon live in the Hillside, she said.

It's unclear when power will be restored to all areas with outages. Both Anchorage-area power companies hoped to have electricity back by Wednesday night, though they warned the process could take until Thursday morning.

Stoplights were out at many city intersections Wednesday morning, with drivers treating the crossings as four-way stops. Police cars -- lights flashing -- idled nearby.

Fifteen to 20 officers were diverted from other duties to aid in rush-hour and commuter traffic, said police spokeswoman Anita Shell. Drivers reported no serious accidents, she said.

About 200 people filed have homeowners insurance claims with State Farm as a result of the storm, some describing trees falling on their houses, garages and sheds, said spokesman Brad Hilliard. While some described moderate damage to their homes, none said their houses were uninhabitable as a result of the damage, he said.

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