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Water recedes, work continues to clear Richardson Highway after massive avalanches cover road

Sean Doogan
DOT working to remove avalanche debris north of the avalanche in Keystone Canyon along the Richardson Highway near Valdez. Crews were able to begin clearing snow and ice after floodwaters receded on Jan 30, 2014.
Alaska DOT
Avalanche debris deposited on the Richardson Highway near Valdez. Crews were able to begin clearing snow and ice after floodwaters receded on Jan 30, 2014.
Alaska DOT
DOT crews work on clearing the Richardson Highway of avalanche debris in Keystone Canyon near Valdez. Crews were able to begin clearing snow and ice after floodwaters receded on Jan 31, 2014.
Alaska DOT
DOT crews work on clearing the Richardson Highway north of the avalanche in Keystone Canyon near Valdez. Crews were able to begin clearing snow and ice after floodwaters receded on Jan 30, 2014.
Alaska DOT
DOT working to remove avalanche debris north of the avalanche in Keystone Canyon along the Richardson Highway near Valdez. Crews were able to begin clearing snow and ice after floodwaters receded on Jan 30, 2014.
Alaska DOT
DOT working to remove avalanche debris north of the avalanche in Keystone Canyon along the Richardson Highway near Valdez. Crews were able to begin clearing snow and ice after floodwaters receded on Jan 30, 2014.
Alaska DOT

The water has been drained off the roadway, but six miles of the Richardson Highway remain impassable because of snow and debris left behind after a series of massive avalanches came down near Valdez. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said late Friday afternoon that its crews continue to work 24 hours per day to clear the highway, and restore road access to Valdez. Set along the shores of Prince William Sound, Valdez is seeing an increase in state ferry traffic in order to move people and goods into the town of about 4,000.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has added three additional round-trip ferry runs between Valdez and Whittier. On Friday it announced a special one-way, Whitter-to-Valdez route to bring more goods and supplies into Valdez, which gets much of its products by barge but still heavily relies on the highway for transportation and shipping.

The avalanche danger in the Keystone Canyon area -- where the Richardson Highway remains closed -- has been reduced to moderate after days of blasting to preempt more slides. That has allowed DOT and contracted crews to begin the job of clearing away thousands of tons of snow, ice and debris brought down by some of the largest avalanches to have ever been seen in the area. DOT said it should have a better idea on Saturday about when the Richardson Highway might reopen between miles 12 and 18.

The avalanches, which began hitting the area Jan. 24, dammed up the Lowe River, sending water over the roadway and creating an artificial lake on top of the highway. The clearing work and melting snow and ice have broken free the dam and the water is now off the road, which seems to be in decent shape.

"We have seen no major damage, so far, because of the water," DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow said.

Woodrow said that the heavily packed snow and ice left behind by the water is another matter, requiring heavy machinery to move.

DOT is posting updates at least twice per day on its website.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.