CORDOVA -- Residents of this Southcentral Alaska community, with help from the Alaska National Guard, have one day to dig themselves out of snowfall that’s buried the Prince William Sound town before more snow and rain piles up on strained roofs and avalanche-prone roads.
On Friday, an overnight snowstorm brought the northeastern Prince William Sound region to a standstill, dumping almost 20 inches of snow in Valdez and bringing the total snow level on the ground at the Cordova airport to 59 inches. The heavy dump of snow in what’s already been an unusually snowy Alaska winter caused avalanches that closed major highways into both Cordova and Valdez, and caused the roofs of two commercial buildings in Cordova to collapse.
A local emergency was declared by Cordova Mayor Jim Kallander on Friday afternoon, and the Alaska Department of Transportation sent five heavy equipment operators to the community to help dig out.
But Mother Nature wasn’t done yet. Temperatures warmed up, and precipitation continued -- turning Cordova snow to rain. That rain, in turn, compressed the heavy layer of snow already pushing roofs around town to their limits and making residents more concerned. It wasn’t letting up Sunday.
That 59 inches at the airport dropped down to 47 inches from Saturday night to Sunday morning, said Don Moore, decision support specialist with the National Weather Service’s Alaska region.
According to Allen Marquette, public information officer with the city of Cordova, clearing the roofs -- already a concern -- became top priority on Sunday.
“It’s an ongoing issue,” Marquette said. “Because of the rains, a lot of the (snow on) roofs did slough and fall off, so some doors were blocked,” preventing people from getting out of their homes, he said.
Now, the residents of Cordova have a one-day break before more snow and rain arrives. Which means they have one day to get ahead of winter, a battle which -- thanks to a continuously mounting set of obstacles -- they’ve been one step behind on so far.
Help on the way
After three long days of shoveling, the exhausted residents of Cordova on Sunday evening should get some help, in the form of 51 Alaska National Guardsmen, who arrived by fast ferry from Whittier.
Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, the adjutant general in charge of the Alaska National Guard, said that the decision to ferry the troops to Cordova was one of necessity.
“We mustered the forces of the Alaska National Guard,” Katkus said, “and the options were getting there by airplane or ocean transport. The weather system is prohibiting our aircraft (from getting to the community).”
Katkus said that the soldiers in Whittier were set to board the ferry at 1 p.m. Sunday, and were slated to arrive in Cordova around 4 p.m. The typical ferry trip from Cordova to Whittier is a six-hour one on the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Katkus said that the National Guard was able to muster the troops quickly because it was a drill weekend, when troops are already assembled for training. It took 19 hours from the time the decision was made to send troops to the time the troops departed for Whittier at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.
He said that those troops won’t be reporting to their day jobs this week.
“They will be there for up to two weeks,” Katkus said. Their arrival isn't a moment too soon, either, according to Kallander.
“On Jan. 6, I got up in the morning, and barely got out of my driveway,” Kallander said. Then, he said, he got in a loader and started clearing the streets.
“About two feet of very wet snow had fallen overnight,” he said. “It became very evident we wouldn’t be able to keep up.” The state of emergency was declared when the city’s snow dumps became full.
Fortunately, Kallander said, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management already had a three-man team in town.
According to John Madden, Director of the Division of Homeland Security for Alaska, the team was there at the request of Cordova administrators, to help the town “improve their plans for an emergency.”
Additionally, division and the State Emergency Office Center coordinated the delivery of numerous pieces of heavy equipment to bolster the manpower descending on the city.
“Requests for heavy equipment and operators are being coordinated with private companies to supply four front-end loaders, one dump truck, one grader, and one snowmelter, with operators sufficient to run 24 hours,” the division said in a release. That equipment was on a barge en route to the city Sunday.
There’s a lot of work to be done, Kallander said. “We haven’t even begun to get on top of the situation,” he said. “But we’re very optimistic we’re gonna get in front of this thing.”
“The critical element,” John Madden said, “is what are the weather conditions in the next 48-72 hours?”
Don Moore, with the National Weather Service, had an answer -- and it was a good news-bad news situation.
“We’re looking at a break in the weather,” Moore said, adding that the cloud ceiling was lifting and conditions could be “generally clear” on Monday. That gives the community, with the help of the National Guard, a day to dig out.
And then, as she so often does, Mother Nature is going to roll back around. On early Tuesday, Moore said, another rash of bad weather will spread across the Prince William Sound region, sparking more snowfall Tuesday morning as winds pick up to 40 mph.
Then, Moore said, temperatures will warm back up -- “eventually enough to start raining, and that will continue" through Tuesday night. He said one or 1-1/2 inches of liquid precipitation would top off the snow Tuesday night.
In rapid fire, it will likely cool off again Wednesday and resume snowing. Moore said that snow could persist through Friday.
It’s been a perfect storm for the community so far, which has seen multiple avalanches close the Copper River Highway -- the only road connecting Cordova to its airport. The city finally cleared the road off Sunday afternoon after a major avalanche Saturday night, according to Cordova public information officer Allen Marquette.
Oddly, a larger avalanche in 2000 had cleared many low-lying trees, making clean-up a little faster this time around.
That’s not all that Cordova has going for it. The city, which is used to heavy snowfall, has all of its power lines buried underground, reducing the risk of power outages. Additionally, fiber optic communication lines are similarly buried, which has allowed lines of communication to remain open.
Most roads had been cleared at least to one lane, Marquette said, but the rain had been causing flooding in some areas where drains were blocked by snow and ice. The sheer volume of snow was daunting. Marquette estimated the height of the snow on his roof -- which he’d started clearing off the day before -- at six feet.
“I’m six-foot four, and I couldn’t see over the top,” he said.
Fortunately, the Marine Highway system, of which Cordova is part, allows for supplies to be brought in when the weather shuts down air travel. Additionally, the city had recently received supplies, the grocery store was open, though schools were scheduled to be closed Monday. No injuries had been reported due to the snow, and the damage had been mostly limited to the first day following the big storm.
“I’m not aware of any issues with supplies. The only thing we’re really lacking is,” Marquette said with a pause, “there’s not a snow shovel left in town.”
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com