New city map shows Anchorage buildings at risk for roof failure under heavy snow load

As Anchorage commercial buildings continue imploding under this year’s exceptionally heavy snow load, city officials published a map detailing which properties are at the highest risk of failure.

The interactive map, published by the municipality’s Development Services department, shows more than 1,000 properties with commercial wood structures on them built between 1970 and 1995.

Many of those are likely to have the wooden truss design that’s been common to almost every building that has collapsed since last winter.

“What we’re really trying to do is surgically weed out the buildings that have this parallel cord wood roof truss that is exhibiting a pattern of failure,” said Ross Noffsinger, the city’s acting building official.

The map is drawn from the same data city officials used at the end of January to mail out 1,070 letters to property owners whose buildings might be susceptible to failure because of the design flaw. It also shows the location of previous collapses, with information about each incident. That data was compiled by the municipality’s property appraisal division.

“At this point, the letters that were sent out were notifications that (property owners) could have this construction,” said Daniel King, a plan review engineer with the city.

Just because a building meets the criteria of concern, King said, does not mean it’s necessarily going to collapse, nor that municipal inspectors are going to close it for safety reasons. Officials will only shut a business down if they spot dangerous signs the trusses are distressed.

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See the city’s interactive map:

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That is what happened at a laundromat in Muldoon this week. Housed in a long, flat strip mall, the business was slapped with a “red tag” by city officials after they discovered structural problems from the snow load pressing down on the roof.

“There were trusses in the laundry tenant that were in active failure,” Noffsinger said.

Out of “an abundance of caution,” he added, officials closed several other businesses sharing the strip mall. But by Friday, snow had been shoveled off the roof and most of the shops were open for business.

Just next door to the shuttered laundromat is local breakfast joint Waffles and Whatnot, which has been in that location for five years.

Lear Green, co-owner of the restaurant, said it was closed as it usually is on Tuesdays, when the city posted the red “unsafe” notice. She was worried, because remaining closed would cost the restaurant critical business days, but staying open would risk safety of staff and customers. A family who owns a vape and smoke shop at the south end of the strip mall shoveled the roofs for all the businesses, Green said.

”We were very thankful for that, because as a small business, with everything that has been happening, you know, to close a day or two — to lose two days of revenue — it’s a big deal,” Green said.

Green said that since the snow has been shoveled, she’s no longer concerned about safety, and the restaurant was back to business as usual Friday. The city inspector found no issues with the roof area above Waffles and Whatnot, she said.

Noffsinger said no other parcels have received a red tag from the city. But public and private inspectors have been busy responding to calls from building owners asking them to come examine structures to ensure their integrity.

“The community in general has gotten the message,” Noffsinger said. “At this point it would be impossible for us to quantify the response. I think everybody’s noticed this: If you drive around town in general, there’s just a lot of commercial building owners removing snow from the roof.”

At least 24 structures in the municipality have fully or partially collapsed during the past two winters. So far, no residential buildings have undergone similar failures, and officials have said they are less concerned about single-family homes, trailers, or apartment buildings than the class of commercial construction supported by long-span wooden trusses.

The Development Services department published guidance for property owners on roof snow removal, and encourages individuals to call them with requests for inspections.

Daily News reporter Emily Goodykoontz contributed to this story.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.