Valdez, no stranger to disaster, sees avalanche as a wonder

mtheriault@adn.comFebruary 1, 2014 

VALDEZ -- People who live here know about snow. They also know about rain and they know about ice. But the town's real expertise is snow.

This is a place where, in the winter of 1989-90, street names had to be spray-painted on snow berms because the signs were buried in mountains of snow, and driving around town was like navigating a white-walled maze. It is a place where businesses post signs advising motorists to park feet away from the building, in case a refrigerator-sized slab should slide off the roof. In Valdez, during the recent winter of 2011-12, it snowed for 31 days straight and roofs specially engineered to hold extra-heavy loads collapsed.

But even old-timers are awed by the sheer magnitude of the highway-swallowing avalanche that abruptly plunged Valdez off the road system last week.

The avalanche, at a spot on the Richardson Highway known as a perfect incubator for avalanche conditions, happened last Saturday. It quickly became obvious that it was not one of the typical Thompson Pass slides that closes the highway for a couple hours from time to time each winter.

For starters, the avalanche at Mile 16 was bigger than anything state highway officials had ever seen: A monster debris field 100 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet long. Its force and size dammed the Lowe River, creating a half-mile-long lake. People in town dubbed it "Damalanche." Uncharted territory.

State highway officials acknowledged last Monday they had no idea when the road was going to be open again.

Sharon Blake, an office manager at the Totem Inn, had to see it for herself. On Wednesday, she and two friends pooled their money to charter a helicopter tour up to the site of the avalanche.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," she said.

With Valdez cut off from the road system, outsiders far away imagined a growing panic in town. Locals shrugged and hunkered down.

"We're doing just fine," city spokeswoman Sheri Pierce told calling reporters, as the Weather Channel and CNN picked up the story of the isolated Alaska town.

Valdez still had air and ferry access. Most of the communities in Alaska aren't connected by road. Lacking a highway put Valdez temporarily in the situation of Cordova, the town's Eastern Prince William Sound neighbor.

In Cordova, people proudly wear sweatshirts that shout NO ROAD, said Blake. Maybe, Blake suggested, Valdez should make some sweatshirts, too.

There was a moment of mild alarm a few days into the closure, when shelves at the only grocery store in town starting going bare. People started loading shopping carts with bottled water, said Kathy Molinar, a local bartender with a deadpan sense of humor who has lived in Valdez for 28 years.

Molinar found it hilarious. She took a satirical series of photos of herself appearing to rush potatoes out of Safeway in a cardboard box. In another one she posed wearing a tinfoil hat.

If people were freaked out by the road closure, she thought, they were probably new to town, Molinar said.

Now in their second week cut off by road, Valdezans regard the closure as both an inconvenience and a point of pride: The power of an avalanche to close one of the state's handful of major highways is part of what makes Valdez a singular place to live, even in a state full of wild extremes.

DISASTERS

Valdez residents are clear about one thing: The road closure is not a disaster.

"This is just a small inconvenience," said Steve Newcomer, a Texan who retired from decades in the Alaska oil industry in Valdez. "This town has had true emergencies."

The very ground Valdez rests on today is a direct result of the greatest catastrophe in its history.

On March 27, 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake roiled Alaska.

In Valdez, a tsunami swept over the town. The docks, where people had gathered to watch a ship's cargo being unloaded, disintegrated. People were pulled into the sea.

Thirty-two people were killed. The death toll in Valdez was higher than any other community in the state, and many of the dead were children.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Valdez reinvented itself. The town site was moved to higher ground, four miles to the west.

It still stands there: A collection of utilitarian buildings backed by a towering wall of mountains.

Reminders of Valdez's fate in the Good Friday Earthquake remain. The airport is a tsunami evacuation zone.

Twenty-five years later, Valdez became notorious as the site of what was then the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef, about 40 miles south of the Valdez terminal, spilling 10.8 million gallons of unrefined Alaska crude oil into Prince William Sound.

The spill fouled marine life and altered the lives and livelihoods of people in Prince William Sound in ways that are still being felt and measured.

But it also brought a post-spill boom, as workers descended on the town to clean up. An industry sprouted up around making sure nothing like it ever happened again.

MOUNTAINS FALLING DOWN

A quarter century after Exxon Valdez and 50 years after the earthquake, Valdez is a city of pipeline workers, fishermen, schoolteachers, backcountry skiers and line cooks.

This winter has been one of the strangest in memory. First there was plenty of snow, which is usual for a place that can see 300 inches or more in a winter. Then, in mid-January, it began to rain, which is not.

Inches of rain fell. Then feet.

People started to hear a sound foreign to the dead of winter: Waterfalls. Bridal Veil Falls, which ice climbers are usually scaling in January, ran fast.

Kate Sicilia and her boyfriend had traveled up from the Lower 48 to spend the winter backcountry skiing and living on the Hogan Isle, a handsome purse seiner parked in the harbor. They did odd jobs to stay busy as they watched the rain prime the mountainsides for avalanches and kill their chances of skiing.

And then, on Friday, Jan. 25, Valdez woke up to see that the mountains that shoot up from behind town appeared to have fallen down, Sicilia said. They were spotted like a pinto horse: Rock and mud visible where the slopes had been frosted white.

The avalanches sounded like a freight train, or a jet taking off.

If the mountains in town were collapsing under the weight of a jiggly, rain-soaked snowpack, what of Snowslide Gulch, 16 miles up the Richardson?

Last Friday morning around 6 a.m., according to state Department of Transportation crews, a massive avalanche caused a chute of snow there to cover the highway.

The last person known to have driven the road before the avalanche was a highway worker making his morning commute to the Thompson Pass work station, said Jason Sakalaskas, an engineer with DOT. He missed the avalanche by minutes, Sakalaskas said.

The next day, explosives triggered an even larger slab at Snowslide Gulch to fall.

Douglas Fulton, a ponytailed veteran Valdez helicopter pilot, saw it happen: "It came down boiling. Spilling out in fingers, in colors I've never seen before. It's just so beautiful."

The force of the snow momentarily reversed the course of the Lowe River.

He's since flown over it 20 times, shuttling DOT officials and once picking up his stepson, who was stranded at a cabin in the Mile 19 subdivision.

When he sees the colossal field of snow, spiky like a stegosaurus and tinted a prism of mud and rock hues, Fulton says his instinct is to take a picture. But he lets his clients do that and keeps his hands on the helicopter's controls.

SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT

For most people, life with no road is life as usual: Safeway's shelves are full of bagged salads, $1.50 avocados, bouquets of carnations and gallons of milk.

The beer truck arrived by ferry to great fanfare on Wednesday, bearing 700 cases of beer, wine and liquor. (But mostly beer, the delivery driver said.) At A Rogue's Garden, the local natural foods store and coffee shop, Friday's lunch specials included lentil vegetable soup and a "Whatever Comes In On The Barge" wrap.

The sky was blue and the roads were clear and so icy that Kate Sicilia and her friends skated on them.

School was in session, minus a few cancelled sports tournaments, and planes flew in and out of the airport.

Out of town shift workers were wondering how to get back to Anchorage with their cars, but the ferry system had added runs to Whittier.

There was a buzz that something special was happening up at Mile 16.

If nothing else, the Damalanche is a stark reminder that the town of 4,000 souls is tethered to the rest of the Alaska by a thin ribbon of asphalt that winds through the snowiest, most avalanche prone mountains in the state.

Kathy Molinar and her friends Garry Bridges and Sharon Blake pooled their money and chartered a helicopter to fly them up to the avalanche. They had to see it for themselves.

Douglas Fulton flew the trio up to the site, making them the first local tourists to see it.

When the helicopter whipped around a corner, laying the enormity of the avalanche field before them, everyone exclaimed "Damn!" at the same time.

They returned to town both delighted and chastened.

At the smoky Eagles Auxiliary Aerie #1971, Bridges was uploading some video he'd shot and burning it onto CDs Wednesday afternoon.

Seeing the highway that people use to make Costco runs and drive kids to basketball tournaments entombed in an avalanche the height of a three-story building shook Molinar. She marveled that she'd ever driven it in winter without emergency supplies or an avalanche beacon.

"It gives a whole new meaning to going to Anchorage in the winter," she said.

A few tables away at the Eagles, Darwin Barrie sat nursing a Rainier beer.

At 78, he has lived in Valdez for more than 60 years. He has been a longshoreman, a fisherman, a laborer and a carpenter.

Barrie was in his 20s on the day of the Good Friday Earthquake. He and a friend had been waylaid on their way down to visit the docks when the earthquake happened.

"The telephone poles were wing-wanging," he said. "The ground was slish-sloshing."

It was a small town, and he knew every one of the people who died down at the docks. His brother-in-law was one of them.

More than half a century in Valdez had given him some perspective on the power of nature to give and to take, he said.

The avalanche, and the way it consumed the highway -- even by Valdez standards, it was special.

"Man," he said, shaking his head. "That is something else."


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

 

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