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Valdez avalanche: Crews begin clearing ice, debris

A wall of snow lines the Richardson Highway as crews work to remove snow from the roadway. Feb. 2 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Snow lines the Richardson highway as crews work to remove more than 40 feet of snow from the roadway following a series of avalanches in late January. Feb. 2 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Crews terrace snow from the roadway to prevent snow from falling back onto the Richardson Highway. Feb. 1 2014
Courtesy Office of the Governor
Looking south, after flood waters have receded from a lake created after the Lowe River was dammed following a series of avalanches. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
DOT crews remove debris north of the avalanche near mile 16 of the Richardson Highway. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Ice and debris deposited on the Richardson Highway as flood water recedes. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Photos taken during an aerial reconnaissance of debris on the roadway and damming of Lowe River north of Valdez following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Water gushes from the dammed Lowe River north of Valdez through an old Alaska railroad tunnel. Photo taken during an aerial reconnaissance by city of Valdez officials. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
The Richardson Highway covered in snow and debris following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Water draining from the dammed Lowe River following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Keystone Canyon, flooded following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A lake created by avalanches that dammed the Lowe River over the weekend that is complicating the removal of debris from the roadway. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
The Richardson Highway covered in water and debris, as seen during a aerial reconnaissance of the roadway following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A lake created following avalanches that dammed the Lowe River north of Valdez over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Avalanches swept through Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon north of Valdez over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Photo taken during an aerial reconnaissance of debris on the roadway and damming of Lowe River north of Valdez following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Massive avalanches closed the Richardson Highway near Valdez.
Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security team
Massive avalanches closed the Richardson Highway near Valdez over the weekend.
Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security team

On Thursday, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities crews began the task of roadway cleanup as water continued to recede from the Richardson Highway, blocked for days by a lake that was created following a series of avalanches north of the community of Valdez, nestled along Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska.  

As work began, the lake water had receded mostly to the banks of the Lowe River, which was dammed by two avalanches over the weekend. Thursday afternoon, crews cleared ice and debris left behind by lake water in preparation to begin removing the dozens of feet of snow that cascaded onto the highway. DOT is optimistic that it will be able to start tackling the snow covering the roadway on Friday, spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow said.

There’s still 40 feet of snow, “if not more,” piled onto the Richardson Highway around mile 16, said Woodrow. The highway remains closed from mile 12 to mile 18.

And while the water -- which, at its peak, submerged 2,500 feet of highway -- has mostly receded, lots of ice and debris has been left behind on the roadway, Woodrow said. DOT has not seen any road damage thus far.

Crews continued to blast the hillside on Thursday, causing several small avalanches. On a scale from 1 to 5, avalanche danger has been downgraded to a 2, or moderate danger, Woodrow said. That means once there’s no water left impounded by the dam, crews can safely start removing debris.

To clear the roadways, crews will “pretty much move (the snow) up and down the road until there’s room on the highway,” Woodrow said. They’ll create roads on top of the avalanche and work to remove the snow from both the top down and bottom up, he said. Crews of roughly six to 10 will work each shift.

The flood watch for the Richardson Highway was canceled at 4 p.m. Thursday, said Valdez city clerk Sheri Pierce. The city’s sole grocery store, a Safeway, continues to receive shipments via barge. Residents have also been taking advantage of increased ferry service from Valdez to Anchorage, Pierce said. The city is advising residents to be prepared for road closures through Monday. 

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews.