As clearing got underway after a three-day snowstorm walloped Anchorage, city and state snow removal crews were working Thursday with sharply limited resources.
Nearly a third of Anchorage’s municipal graders were out of service when 1 to 2 feet of snow blanketed the city in a storm that ended Wednesday. Additionally, half the Alaska Department of Transportation equipment used to service highways and state-owned roadways in Anchorage was undergoing maintenance.
State and municipal officials say the diminished snow-clearing fleets are due to supply-chain issues with materials and a serious shortage of mechanics to repair equipment, leaving crews with fewer tools to do the same amount of work.
Forecasters say the 10.4 inches of snow that fell Tuesday was the most snow to fall on Dec. 6 on record.
Anchorage public schools were closed for a third day on Friday because “road conditions remain unsafe for buses and students walking to school,” the school district wrote Friday.
Anchorage police responded to more than 200 vehicles in distress by Wednesday afternoon. The Anchorage School District called off classes two days in a row because of poor weather and dangerous road conditions.
By Thursday, main roads in Anchorage were largely cleared, though still rough. Many side streets remained clogged by deep, heavy snow pushed into ruts by passing vehicles or shoved by plows or snowblowers into tall berms.
The equipment shortage hasn’t stopped roads from getting plowed, but it can slow progress, state and municipal officials said. The state maintains more than 20 of the main arteries in the city, including Tudor Road and Dimond Boulevard. Municipal crews handle the remainder, except for the Hillside where snow removal is handled by numerous road-service areas.
As of Thursday, state officials said their operational equipment included five out of seven graders, one of three snow blowers and three of eight sanders. On Wednesday, the municipality reported nine of its 30 graders were awaiting repair.
The storm that hit this week would be challenging to clean up regardless because of the amount of heavy snow that fell in such a short amount of time, said Justin Shelby, the administrative operations manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation’s central region.
By Thursday morning, state road maintenance crews finished clearing priority roads in Anchorage, including Minnesota Drive and the Glenn and Seward highways, Shelby said. Crews were moving onto main arterials, like Muldoon and Tudor roads, on Thursday and he was hopeful those roads would be finished by night so plowing could begin on smaller streets.
Municipal street maintenance crews finished arterial and collector roads Wednesday and began plowing residential neighborhoods on Thursday morning. The city asked residents not to push snow from driveways onto the street and to avoid parking on streets until they have been cleared. An online map shows the plan for plowing over a period of days.
It’s normal for at least some of the state’s equipment to be out of service for repairs or maintenance at any given time, Shelby said, but the number out now is slightly higher than usual.
It has taken longer to repair equipment during the last few years because of a mechanic staffing shortage and supply-chain issues, said Brad Bylsma, the transportation department’s statewide equipment fleet manager.
In Anchorage, the state’s largest repair shop, four of the 10 mechanic positions are currently unfilled, Bylsma said, and nearly a quarter of mechanic positions are open around the state.
Anchorage provides workers for rural locations as well, he said. “Today we have a guy flying from Anchorage to Illiamna to take care of equipment there, we have guys next week going to Aniak and Red Devil and several other places.”
Mechanics work with maintenance crews to prioritize which equipment needs to be repaired first, Bylsma said. With more employees, he said, there could be more preventive maintenance instead of emergency repairs.
Supply-chain problems have also caused delays in some repairs, Bylsma said. It takes longer to get certain parts and it’s much more difficult to buy new equipment.
Similar issues have made it more challenging for the municipality to quickly repair equipment, street maintenance manager Paul VanLandingham said Wednesday.
None of the repairs were major, VanLandingham said, and he was hopeful that parts would arrive in the next few days so the entire fleet could become operational again.
Municipal crews are also grappling with staffing shortages: there are 13 or 14 full-time positions open. The department is normally staffed with 78 to 80 people, he said.
“Anytime we’re short-handed there, that puts a little bit more strain on the folks down running the equipment,” VanLandingham said. “So yeah, it will increase the need for some overtime, but even if we were fully staffed in an event like this, even if I had another 15 people — there’s still plenty of work out there. We would be hitting 24/7 for a seven- to 10-day period anyway.”
The storm started Monday but the accumulation started piling up Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. The National Weather Service measured more than 13 inches at the official gauge at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, but that was less snow than many parts of the city received.
The weather service got reports of snowfall continuing into Wednesday afternoon and evening in East Anchorage and the Hillside, as well as Eagle River.
West Anchorage saw roughly a foot or more snow from Monday until Wednesday, while East Anchorage received about 2 feet of snow. Up to 29 inches was reported in Southeast Anchorage.
It will be days before the roads are completely cleared. VanLandingham said Wednesday that crews will work 24/7 for at least the next week.
A statement from Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s office Thursday afternoon said, “Municipal crews are moving into residential areas to begin clearing snow. We expect this work to continue into the weekend until all residential streets are cleared. Plowing of downtown is ongoing and will likely take until Friday evening to clear municipally owned roads in the downtown region.”
More snow could be coming. The National Weather Service on Thursday said another storm “may be on the horizon” for Southcentral this weekend.