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No weather respite for Alaska town of Cordova

Ben Anderson
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
4th Street in Cordova after the January 2012 snowstorm.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Cordova driveway.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
2nd Street in Cordova after the January 2012 storm.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Tunnel to a home's front door in Cordova after the January 2012 snow storm.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Snow falls near Palmer, Alaska, during a January snow storm.
Stephen Nowers photo
Cars the Cordova airport.
Photo courtesy CordovaBuzz.com
Cordova snow storm, January 6.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Clearing snow from tanks in Cordova.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
The Cordova Wireless building was snowed in after a snowstorm Jan. 6, 2012.
David Little photo
View from the 5-Mile Loop Road at base of the avalanche.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
A car in Valdez snowed in by a storm on Jan. 6, 2012.
Debbi Marsden photo
Damage to the Fisherman's Camp warehouse due to the snow storm.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
A Front-end loader clears Main Street in Cordova on Jan. 6, 2012
David Little photo
The Fisherman's Camp warehouse in Cordova.
Photo courtesy the Cordova Times
A house is snowed in in Valdez following a snowstorm Jan. 6, 2012,
Photo courtesy Carole Townsend Derifield
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Vehicles on the Parks Highway near the Trunk Road overpass travel through a snow storm on Thursday, January 12.
Stephen Nowers photo
Clearing snow in Cordova.
Photo courtesy Linden O'Toole
Valdez snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Kate Herring
Crewmembers of the Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore and National Guardsmen clear compacted snow and ice from the roof of the grocery store as snow continues to fall in Cordova on Jan. 12.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Carla Geyer
Coast Guard personnel from Valdez help clear several feet of snow from the roof of a building on Jan. 11. Record amounts of snow, coupled with a lack of snow removal equipment in Valdez, have shut down many public services in the community.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Allie Ferko
Removing snow from a Cordova street by loading it into a melter.
Photo courtesy Linden O'Toole
A musk ox settles into recent snow at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center photo
A house in Cordova buried in the January 2012 snow storm.
Photo courtesy Linden O'Toole
Cordova snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Rochelle van den Broek
Snow piles up on the street-side of the Killer Whale Cafe in Cordova.
Photo by Lindsay Butters
Valdez snow storm, January 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Kate Herring
Snow blocks the back door of the Killer Whale Cafe in Cordova.
Photo by Lindsay Butters

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?”

Murphy’s Law

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