Update, 8:15 a.m.: Nearly 2,000 Mat-Su households remained without power Wednesday morning following a powerful windstorm that started Saturday and knocked out electricity to as many as 22,000 customers.
The largest outage reported by Matanuska Electric Association was in the Lazy Mountain area, where crews grappled with numerous downed trees and damage to equipment. Other areas still without power included Soapstone, Sutton, Palmer-Fishhook, Palmer, the area around Seldon Road and Lucille Street, and the busy, retail-heavy intersection of Palmer-Wasilla and Parks highways in Wasilla.
PALMER — Steve Carrington and his family lost power early Sunday morning.
As of Tuesday morning, their downtown Palmer home hovered around 40 degrees, the pipes had burst and part of their roof and one door had been torn off by the wind.
Carrington is Palmer’s mayor. He also worked for years for Matanuska Electric Association, the utility working feverishly to restore power to residents around Mat-Su, where 5,000 households remained without electricity Tuesday night after a violent, multiday windstorm hammered the region starting over the weekend.
“Yeah, that doesn’t help a lot,” Carrington said Tuesday morning of the minimal perks of his job. “Even living in Palmer, where MEA has its headquarters, that doesn’t speed up the process of the outages.”
The storm, one of the most powerful of its kind to hit Palmer and Wasilla, pummeled homes and businesses with constant high winds and gusts measured as high as 91 mph. The storm damaged buildings, flipped airplanes and truck trailers, sent debris flying and left up to 22,000 households without power for long stretches of time with temperatures near zero. Some outages are expected to continue through the week.
Alaska Army National Guard units are staged and standing by in Wasilla to help evacuate people who are isolated and need to be taken to warming shelters, and to help with traffic management and pilot car operations if they are needed because of drifting snow, Borough Manager Mike Brown said during an Assembly meeting on Tuesday.
Central Mat-Su and West Lakes fire crews quickly extinguished a fire Tuesday afternoon on the roof of the Creekside Plaza mall. The wind blew over five or six roof unit heaters, which caused a gas leak and then one unit caught fire, according to Central Mat-Su Chief Michael Keenan. The fire started above a vacant unit and didn’t spread into the roof.
A number of businesses also experienced damage or power outages. Reports on social media described the Fred Meyer in Wasilla running on generator power and without perishable items.
Throughout the outage area, some people reported using gas stoves or propane burners to help heat freezing homes after losing power. Prolonged use of gas stoves or burners can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, especially in enclosed areas without ventilation.
Ken Barkley, director of emergency services for the borough, said during the Assembly meeting that first responders were frequently being called to homes for situations involving improper use of equipment for heating leading to an indoor buildup of carbon monoxide, which can be deadly.
“The biggest one we’re getting is generators,” Barkley said. “Do not run your generator in your house. Do not run your generator in the garage — it will get you. It’s colorless, odorless, tasteless — you won’t know it. You’ll get a little bit of a headache, you’ll get tired, you’ll lay down. That might be it.”
A dozen people arrived at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center on Monday night showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, said Alan Craft, a spokesman for the hospital.
Six of the people were a family that had a generator running in a garage that was attached to their house, Barkley said.
“Three of them, we didn’t think were going to make it, and they all survived,” he said.
Six people who rely on oxygen machines were also admitted to the hospital after their homes lost power, Craft said.
The hospital has seen an increased volume of patients during the last few days, he said, because most other medical providers in the region closed during the severe weather. Less than 20 of the hospital’s 125 beds were open Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District announced schools would remain closed Wednesday for a third day. A statement from the district cited “prolonged power outages and frigid temperatures experienced within the Borough.”
The district’s facilities department is working to repair “various building systems at a number of schools,” the statement said. “The District also continues to monitor road conditions, with power outages impacting traffic signals at major intersections and sustained winds preventing icy roadways and school parking lots from being sanded.”
Many public facilities and businesses were closed in Wasilla on Tuesday. The Palmer Pool and Borough Gym also closed due to storm damage, with the pool expected to reopen Wednesday but the gym closed for the week.
Burst pipes wreak havoc
Public works officials in Palmer and Wasilla described too many reports to count of burst pipes from residents and businesses, many accompanied by flooding and water damage.
Palmer city manager John Moosey said public works employees are “working their tails off” keeping roads clear and trying to respond to problems.
Three pipes burst in the Palmer Courthouse and caused water damage, said Rebecca Koford, spokeswoman for the state court system. The courthouse is closed while contractors remove the water. It wasn’t immediately clear when it would reopen.
“We should have a better idea of the timeline after water is removed,” Koford said.
The Anchorage court is handling emergency hearings and other matters are being rescheduled. No files were damaged or lost when the pipes burst, she said.
In Wasilla, half the city’s sewer treatment plant lost power, leading to problem with freezing, according to acting public works director Robert Walden. The other half was on temporary power. A steam thawing truck stored at the plant froze too.
Many of the calls coming into city dispatchers are about burst pipes, Walden said, urging residents to “really assess” their system before calling the city, starting with the boiler and pipes.
“About 90% unfortunately are where we have to tell them it’s on their side and they have to get contractors to go in and thaw ‘em out slowly and hopefully they don’t burst,” he said.
One of the city’s main water reservoir towers also lost most of its siding, Walden said.
“We’re trying to keep water running through it,” he said. “But obviously we’ve never had nothing like that happen before so we’re trying to figure out how that’s going to affect it.”
‘Worst windstorm I’ve ever seen’
The winds had abated from constant high levels by Tuesday, but forecasters cautioned residents to expect continued risks from flying debris through the day.
Northeast winds of 25 to 40 mph were expected in the Matanuska Valley on Tuesday, with gusts up to 60 mph, an updated high wind warning from the National Weather Service said. Wind chill temperatures were expected to be 20 to 35 degrees below zero Tuesday.
Thirty people spent Monday night in shelters in Palmer and Wasilla, according to Red Cross of Alaska. A dozen stayed overnight in Wasilla and 18 in Palmer, with people trickling in Tuesday morning to warm up and charge phones. Red Cross officials said they’re planning to keep the shelters open as long as there’s a need and the Mat-Su Borough is requesting it. Barkley said around 6 p.m. Tuesday that there were eight people at the Wasilla shelter and five in Palmer.
Numerous reports circulated of windows and doors shattered, light poles knocked over, and home temperatures dropping into the 30s, with potentially devastating consequences for pet fish and houseplants.
As of Tuesday evening, 5,000 members remained without power, according to Matanuska Electric Association. The biggest outages were in Wasilla, Palmer and the Palmer-Fishhook area. Other outages extended from Sutton to Talkeetna.
Most large outages in the upper Susitna Valley had been resolved as of Tuesday.
“We believe that with the pace that we’re on right now and on track with that we will have everybody back on with power by Friday evening,” said Jennifer Castro, a spokeswoman for the collective.
About 515 households were without power on Lazy Mountain, where residents have been told numerous downed trees were making repairs difficult. The electric association aimed to have power restored to the upper half of the mountain by 10 p.m. Tuesday and to the lower half of the mountain by 2 a.m. Wednesday, Castro said.
Lynn Fuller, a Lazy Mountain resident, said she lost the rest of her 50-year-old pole barn to the storm — the first third vanished in another bad blow in the early 1990s. Fuller said she was staying warm with a wood stove and a generator, and was making use of all the food and water she’d stashed in case of an earthquake.
“I’m using my earthquake supplies, my go-to bag and my extra candles,” she said Tuesday morning. “So I hope we don’t have an earthquake.”
Meanwhile, Palmer Mayor Carrington said he and his family were staying at an apartment with power and checking on their home twice a day.
“Yesterday, I officially labeled this the worst windstorm I’ve ever seen,” he said. “One nine years ago ripped off part of my roof. ... It happened again this year, except it also ripped my front door off my arctic entry.”
The National Weather Service has classified the storm as a “bora” wind created when extremely cold air over the Yukon territory rushes down through valleys toward warmer air in the Gulf of Alaska. The severity of this event rivaled the worst ever recorded. Forecasters on Tuesday were still assessing whether it has become the most severe on record.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration for Matanuska-Susitna Borough Monday afternoon, he wrote on Facebook. Disaster declarations were also issued for the Upper Tanana Basin Regional Attendance Education Area, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Denali Borough and Copper River Basin REAA.
The declaration activates the state’s Individual Assistance program designed to help individuals and families with damages and/or expenses related to the event, according to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Starting Tuesday, individuals and families were able to apply for state disaster recovery grants for damages to their primary residences at ready.alaska.gov. The registration deadline is March 4.
The program has three components:
• Temporary Housing grants that provide funds to secure lodging while applicants pursue permanent housing solutions. Financial assistance may be available for up to 18 months for owners and three months for renters.
• Housing Assistance grants that can provide funds for serious damage to primary residences not covered by insurance.
• Other Needs Assistance grants that can provide funds for losses to essential personal property not covered by insurance such as clothing, appliances and furniture, as well as recovery costs such as cleanup and some storage expenses, and may also help with disaster-caused medical or funeral expenses not covered by insurance.
The maximum grant available through Housing Assistance is $18,950, and separately, an additional $18,950 for Other Needs Assistance. Temporary Housing is calculated separately based on family size and local rates of stay.
Daily News photojournalist Emily Mesner contributed to this story.