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Unseasonable windstorm ravages Anchorage

Neighborhoods hummed with the sound of chain saws Wednesday as residents cleared thousands of trees felled by a powerful, unseasonable windstorm that pummeled Anchorage. At least 50,000 homes and businesses lost power overnight.

Power utilities said it could be late Thursday before electricity is completely restored to roughly 10,000 customers still without power Wednesday afternoon. No one was seriously injured in the storm, but moderate damage was widespread. Sunrise Wednesday revealed smashed cars, demolished fences, splintered sheds, downed wires and crushed roofs.

The storm disrupted routines and caused confusion citywide. The Anchorage School District and University of Alaska Anchorage canceled classes. State offices closed and federal offices opened late. Cellphones didn't work. Websites went down. Airlines diverted flights. Anchorage firefighters were overwhelmed with hundreds of calls about snarled power lines and exploding transformers sparking small fires. Stop lights went dark. Morning rush-hour traffic crawled, with police officers posted at intersections, lights flashing.

In Northeast Anchorage, one of the hardest-hit parts of the city, cottonwoods lining a street north of Anchorage Baptist Temple looked like a giant stand of wheat mowed down by a scythe. Municipal crews chopped up birch that once sheltered the parking lot at Cheney Lake. Uprooted trees could be seen along nearly every north-south street from Chester Valley to Mountain View. Utility and city crews worked through neighborhoods, clearing hundreds of downed trees from streets and trails.

The National Weather Service recorded gusts of 88 mph at McHugh Creek and 63 mph at the Port of Anchorage. Much of the rest of the Anchorage Bowl had gusts topping out in the 60 mph range. Sensors in many of the windiest places, like the upper Hillside, lost power before the apex of the storm. Meteorologists said gusts likely reached 100 mph or more. On its Facebook page, the agency circulated one "unofficial" wind report from a resident, who said he measured gusts at 131 mph in the Glen Alps area.

"Nobody here can remember a storm this strong, this early in the season," said meteorologist Shaun Baines.

Neighborhoods were full of scenes of tree cutting and lawn clearing as winds continued to jangle wind chimes. Children, out of school, rode bicycles through the downed branches.

People wandered the streets, photographing the damage and trading stories from the night before. Many described the eerie darkness that enveloped the city as power went out. Wind howled. Trees cracked. Transformers crackled and exploded, coloring the sky green. Some time after midnight, the moon came out and the sky filled with stars that aren't usually visible because of the city lights.

In Nunaka Valley, resident Heidi Bowlus heard a loud crack around 11 p.m. Peering out the window of her son Jack's room, she saw leaves and tree trunk. A six-story cottonwood with a 2-foot wide trunk had landed on the roof, smashing the deck. Not long after, two other large trees in the front yard began to list at a 45-degree angle, pulling up the turf around them like an old carpet.

"About then we sent our boys over to the neighbors to spend the night," Heidi said.

Wednesday afternoon, her husband was on the roof with his chain saw. She was still waiting for power, her refrigerator and freezer plugged into a generator.

On Glacier Street in East Anchorage, Kristine Fredrickson went outside to investigate shortly after she lost power.

"I thought, 'Why does it look like there's a monster blocking my driveway?' I shined a flashlight on it and it was like, 'Oh my god!' " Fredrickson said, pointing at the mess of branches and logs blocking the way out. "I'm thinking this is going to cost me about a grand. I don't have the money for this. ... This wasn't part of the plan."

The storm arrived while trees were still thick with leaves and heavy with sap, said Mike Post, owner of Tall Trees tree service. In the powerful winds, branches caught the gusts like sails. Trunks snapped and trees toppled, dragging huge root systems out of the water-softened ground.

State Farm Insurance reported 200 claims had been filed by mid-Wednesday, with more expected. Tree services such as Tall Trees were flooded with calls.

Post has been in business in Anchorage since the mid-'90s. He's never seen damage like Tuesday's.

"It's unbelievable how many trees have come down," he said.

Over in Mountain View, Michael Rodgers spent Wednesday sawing a enormous birch tree that took out his carport and the car inside. Drivers slowed as they passed, sticking cellphones out the window to shoot pictures. He stopped his work to mug for the camera.

"Need any firewood?"

Reporters Casey Grove and Mike Dunham contributed to this story.

Reader photos: Anchorage windstorm Sept. 4-5



Anchorage Daily News