Danger of more avalanches delays clearing of Richardson Hwy. slides

mtheriault@adn.comJanuary 26, 2014 

State transportation officials said Sunday it will be at least Tuesday before avalanche debris can be cleared from the Richardson Highway outside Valdez.

Valdez city officials, meanwhile, warned residents to prepare for the road to be closed a week or longer.

The town of 4,000 has been cut off since Friday, when avalanches hundreds of feet long and up to 30 to 40 feet deep blocked the highway, which links the Valdez to the rest of the state's road system.

On Saturday, an even bigger avalanche further entombed the highway in a jumble of snow, ice, rock and water, officials said.

The Alaska Department of Transportation closed a 50-mile stretch of the highway starting 12 miles out of Valdez and ending north of Thompson Pass.

Valdez city officials told residents to be ready for a longer wait.

"I think Tuesday is pretty optimistic," city spokeswoman Sheri Pierce said Sunday. "So we're asking residents to plan on at least a week."

It's too early to say exactly how long it will take to clear the massive accumulation of snow from the highway, but the state's Department of Transportation stands by the assertion that Tuesday is a reasonable time frame, said spokesman Jeremy Woodrow.

In Valdez, rumors flew on Facebook Sunday about supposed gas and fuel shortages, while city officials worked to quell the alarm.

KCHU radio reporter Tony Gorman snapped a photo of the mostly bare dairy aisle at Safeway, the only grocery store in town. The supply of bread and milk appeared to be dwindling.

"There have been people who have been concerned more about the beer and the cigarettes," he said.

Safeway promised that a barge of supplies would arrive late Sunday, Pierce said. Another should arrive Monday.

"Safeway staff is prepared to work through the night to stock shelves as food and supplies arrive," the city wrote in an update posted online. "If the road remains closed they will continue to barge food into Valdez as needed."

Valdez has plenty of gasoline, heating fuel and medical supplies in store to withstand an extended road closure, the city said.

The closure is not without its inconveniences.

High school sports teams had plans to complete in tournaments in Palmer and Fairbanks stymied by the road closure.

"They didn't go anywhere," public radio reporter Gorman said.

It's important to remember that Valdez is cut off by road only, said Kate Dugan, who knows better than most.

There's also regular ferry service to Whittier and flights to and from Anchorage.

Dugan, who works in communications for the Alyeska Pipeline Services Company, is one of a handful of people stuck in their rustic subdivision at Mile 19 of the highway.

She and her neighbors are cut off in both directions by avalanches, meaning they can't drive out.

After a brief loss of power on Friday, life has pretty much been operating as normal, Dugan said. She spent Sunday cleaning, playing with the neighborhood huskies and doing yoga.

One or two neighbors have been flown out by a regular rotation of privately-owned helicopters and small planes that have been surveying the valley.

"We can definitely leave if there's an emergency," she said.

Valdez is the northernmost ice-free port in North America and the terminus of the Alyeska Pipeline, which funnels oil from the North Slope to waiting tankers in Prince William Sound. So there's more than one way to get in and out, Dugan said.

With clear weather on Sunday, flights were landing and taking off at Valdez's airport.

Oil flow through the pipeline has been unaffected by the avalanches, said Michelle Egan, an Alyeska spokeswoman.

"We are doing surveillance of the flood and avalanche areas regularly to monitor the impact on the pipeline itself," she said. "We will continue the increased surveillance as long as is necessary."

The city has also asked the Alaska Marine Highway Service to increase ferry service, Pierce said.

There's no word yet on whether that will happen.

Cleaning up after an avalanche is a two phase process, Transportation Department spokesman Woodrow said.

On Sunday, crews were still working on the first step, dropping explosives from helicopters to stabilize slopes by triggering new slides.

"Lots of small slides are better than no slides," he said.

No crews will be sent in to clear the road until avalanche experts have determined that slopes are stable and the risk of entering Keystone Canyon, 12 miles north of Valdez, is "minimal," he said.

Compounding problems: A large slide in the canyon created a snow dam on the upstream side of the Lowe River, which in turned flooded the roadway.

"We don't want to put crews at risk of that dam breaking," Woodrow said.

Water was reported to be receding via an old railway tunnel Sunday, he said.

A voluntary evacuation advisory for the Nordic and Alpine Woods subdivisions, near Keystone Canyon, was still in effect as of Sunday evening , Pierce said. No one had taken advantage of an emergency shelter offered in the high school gymnasium, but she'd heard of some residents staying in town with friends or at local hotels.

The avalanches are among the largest seen in the Thompson Pass, which holds the record for snowfall in Alaska.

Pierce, the city spokeswoman, said that living in Valdez comes with a regular chance of avalanche activity on the only road out. People expect closures that last hours or a day or two at most, she said. But a week or more?

Valdez can take it, said Kate Dugan, from her 14-by-20 foot cabin, sandwiched between avalanches at Mile 19. Her neighbors are a self-sufficient lot.

"If this was going to happen to a neighborhood it's good that it's our neighborhood," she said. "I mean, I have a 10 pound sack of beans normally and a couple freezers full of fish and meat."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


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