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As highway is reopened, Valdez residents say 'damalanche' was little bother

It's official: The 'Damalanche' is gone.

The state Department of Transportation reopened Richardson Highway near Valdez on Wednesday morning after a series of monster avalanches blocked the city's only artery to the state road system for 12 days.

The first slides thundered down the mountain on Jan. 24 at Mile 39 near Thompson Pass and Mile 16 near Keystone Canyon, prompting transportation officials to close a 52-mile stretch of the highway.

Then, DOT triggered another massive slide at Mile 16 on Jan. 25 that further choked the roadway. The avalanche dammed the Lowe River, creating a half-mile-long lake that stalled snow removal between Mile 12 and 18 for nearly a week. The blockage was dubbed the "Damalanche" by residents.

Once the water receded on Friday, crews worked around the clock to clear about 200,000 cubic yards of snow in five days, said Jeremy Woodrow, DOT spokesman.

The road reopened at 10 a.m. Wednesday, five hours earlier than expected. The highway wasn't damaged and no one was injured.

Valdez resident Melissa Sanford, 60, even won an indoor pool party for 50 people out of the ordeal.

"I'm a lucky girl," she said as the newly-crowned winner of Valdez's quirky contest to guess the timing of the highway's opening.

Sanford optimistically put in a bid for 6 p.m. Tuesday and wound up being the closest contestant who didn't overshoot the time.

"You know, the nice thing about this town is that when things happen they have a really good attitude," she said.

Some Valdez residents described the past two weeks as "quieter" with "a little less traffic" on Wednesday. Some said they felt a stronger sense of community.

Josh Miller, a teacher at Valdez High School, has been taking his classes outside to examine avalanche debris over the past two weeks.

"We live in a really cool place where these events just make it really interesting," he said. "I think everybody has been really fascinated."

Kate Dugan, who works in communications for the Alyeska Pipeline Services Co., couldn't leave her subdivision just outside of Valdez for almost a week. The cabin lost power twice, but Dugan said she and her husband "made do."

"I had a very understanding boss who let me work from home," she said. "But life kind of continued on, maybe quieter or mellower. I was able to bake a little more bread."

Perhaps the city's resilient nature stems from repeated needs to hunker down. In 2006, flooding and mudslides shut down the Richardson Highway for 11 days. About 325 inches of snow fall on Valdez during a "normal" winter.

"Generally speaking I think we live in this part of the world for a reason and we tend to take these things in stride," said John Hozey, Valdez city manager.

Hozey said city officials focused on keeping residents informed, issuing statements twice a day about avalanche clearing progress, grocery store shipments and mail deliveries.

For him, the road blockage is the price you pay to live in "one of the prettiest places in the planet," he said.

And as Hozey likes to say about the 'Damalanche' saga: "It's just another day in the great land."

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.