Weather

Windstorm causes power outages, destruction and chaos in the Matanuska Valley

Update, 7:30 a.m. Tuesday: About 8,619 Matanuska Electric Association members remained without power by Tuesday morning, according to the outage map.

The rate of new outages slowed overnight, the cooperative said on Facebook.

“We hope to make good progress today for our members, getting a majority of folks who have been out since late Saturday/early Sunday back on,” the post said.

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.

Original:

Powerful winds that ripped through Southcentral Alaska over the weekend will continue to cause chaos in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in the coming days, officials said Monday.

Wind gusts up to 91 mph 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. The outages could continue through the week, officials said Monday.

The borough opened emergency shelters on Monday for people who could be endangered by the extreme cold. No deaths or serious injuries had been reported by Monday afternoon.

The storm prompted an emergency declaration from the borough and state that will provide additional funds for recovery.

‘Dangerous and life threatening’

The Red Cross opened 24-hour emergency shelters in Palmer and Wasilla for people who need refuge from the winds and cold. The shelters are at Curtis D. Menard Sports Center in Wasilla, 1001 S. Clapp St., and the Palmer shelter will move Monday night from the senior center to Palmer Junior Middle School at 1159 S. Chugach St.

A wind warning was in place until Wednesday evening. Although the heavy winds are expected to begin slowly diminishing Monday afternoon and into Wednesday, dangerous conditions will still exist because of frigid temperatures, said meteorologist Aviva Braun of the National Weather Service.

Wind-chill temperatures are expected to be 20 to 35 degrees below zero near Palmer and Wasilla in coming days.

“This could be dangerous and life threatening,” Braun said. “For those without power, frostbite can develop in as little as 15 minutes. So we want people to be aware of that and make sure they take precautions as necessary.”

Some homes could remain without power until the end of the week because repair crews are contending with challenging weather and an extreme number of widespread outages, said Jennifer Castro, a spokeswoman for Matanuska Electric Association.

Municipal Manager Mike Brown advised residents to shelter in place until the storm ends, or seek refuge at a place with power if they are experiencing long stretches of time without power and heat at home.

“We would definitely encourage folks not to stay home too long in their homes if they’re without power and it’s getting to that point where they can’t maintain an adequate temperature,” he said during a news conference Monday.

By 5:30 p.m. Monday, more than 15,000 Matanuska Electric Association members were still without power. Roughly 22,000 members had been without power at one point Sunday. The outages were concentrated near Wasilla and Palmer but stretched along the Parks Highway toward Talkeetna.

“To describe the situation that we’re facing is every time we get some folks back on, we’re seeing another outage elsewhere,” Castro said. “And so we haven’t really been able to make a whole ton of headway in terms of seeing that number ultimately come down.”

Crews were prioritizing larger outages first, Castro said, but there were no timelines for specific restorations.

“We do have a significant amount of smaller groups of outages that we’re also trying to prioritize in terms of longest duration out. So for folks that have been out over 24 hours in there in those smaller sets of outages, we greatly appreciate your patience and we are going to try to get to you as soon as we can today hopefully,” Castro said. “But like we said we anticipate to have every member restored likely by the end of this week.”

Crews were working 16-hour shifts to make repairs and additional crews would be coming to the area Monday from Anchorage and the Interior, Castro said.

Few people had stopped at the warming shelters by Monday afternoon, Brown said. He expects more will arrive as outages continue.

“At the shelters, the Red Cross does have food available there and sleeping facilities, cots,” said Emergency Services Director Ken Barkley. “... We will be updating the shelters with updates about what’s going on, what power is restored and what other areas roads are open or closed, so you’ll be getting those updates inside the shelter.”

‘We’re just melting snow’

Monday marked about two days since Patrick Taylor had power in his Wasilla home.

“It came back on for maybe a couple of hours yesterday in the late morning, early afternoon,” he said. “And then it shut off again and it’s been off since.”

Taylor has been storing the food from his refrigerator in the snow on his deck and said he feels lucky to have a gas stove and fireplace to provide heat.

But his water, which is drawn from a well, has been inaccessible since the power went out. Taylor ventured out to a few nearby gas stations Monday, but one had run out of water and the other was closed because of the power outages, he said.

“So we just kind of turned around and came back and figured for the most part we’re just melting snow and ice until the power comes back on, or we may try to get out to a bigger store sometime later today,” he said.

Carole West and her husband Bill lost power at their home on Lazy Mountain Saturday afternoon, she said over the phone Monday. That night they tried to warm the house as best as they could and brought out the camping gear.

But when the winds grew even more intense overnight and temperatures began to drop inside, West gathered up her pets — four dogs, a diabetic cat and an African grey parrot — and hunkered down in the bedroom, which she helped heat with a propane burner.

She corralled her 10 chickens into the garage and hoped for the best. Pets are not allowed at the city’s warming shelters.

Temperatures in the rest of the house dropped to 37 degrees, she said, but the bedroom only got down to about 46 degrees. West said her betta fish also died because of the low temperatures.

Bill West was able to install a generator Monday and Carole West said that has brought power to portions of their home, although some of the pipes are frozen.

Denise Nelson had felt lucky most of Sunday because her home still had power throughout the day while many of her Palmer neighbors were experiencing outages. But as 9 p.m. hit, the lights turned off in her house.

Nelson bundled up with covers and went to bed, but the temperature in her home dropped as low as 37 degrees the next morning.

Nelson was concerned for her plants, some of which were inherited from her mother, so she crowded them near the propane stove in hopes of keeping them warm enough not to freeze. By Monday night, the temperature was about 65 degrees around the height of the stove, she said.

In downtown Palmer, the power was also out at her store, NonEssentials. Nelson sells gourmet food and has a commercial-grade kitchen in the shop. While the shop wasn’t damaged, Nelson said she expects much of the food inside the freezers and refrigerators will spoil during the outage.

“And not having your business open when you’re used to being open and having sales everyday when you still have bills to pay and stuff like that is a little stressful,” she said.

Dangerous roads

The school district canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday. Superintendent Randy Trani said an announcement will be made by noon Tuesday regarding classes on Wednesday.

School facilities sustained only minor wind damage, Trani said. But transporting students to school posed a safety risk, he said.

“The main reason for that is our parking lots, they just are not safe for students,” he said “And we can’t have kids waiting at bus stops. Not to mention we have so many families and staff who are dealing with broken pipes and no electricity.”

Many roads were impassable Monday morning and blowing snow and large drifts made driving difficult, including along the Parks and Glenn highways in Wasilla and Palmer.

Extreme weather

By Monday, strong winds had been gusting through the Mat-Su for 48 straight hours, said Braun, from the weather service.

A 91 mph gust was recorded Sunday near the Glenn and Parks highway interchange, and gusts in the 70 mph range continued Monday morning in the area, she said.

Braun classified the event as a bora wind, which she said happens when a “polar arctic airmass or extremely cold temperatures set in over the Yukon and force their way through the valleys, rolling downhill and out to the Gulf, where the temperatures are much warmer,” she said.

“This effect is compounded by the difference in pressure between the very cold temperatures over the Yukon and the low pressure over the Gulf. The difference combined of the temperature and the pressure then allows the wind to rush from the Yukon to the Gulf.”

The storm comes as several other areas of the state have also been hit by severe weather.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration for the Mat-Su Borough on 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.

CONDITIONS UPDATE for #Palmer #MatSu #Wasilla: We are working to remove the drifting snow across state highways and...

Posted by Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities on Monday, January 3, 2022

Significant damage

Significant damage occurred throughout the area, with reports of downed trees and power lines, blown-off roofs, broken windows, flying debris and flipped trucks and trailers.

In Wasilla, police warned the public to avoid the KFC and A&W restaurant on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway because of a “catastrophic collapse.” In a photo shared by the police department on Facebook, one wall of the restaurant was completely gone, with debris piled up near the drive-thru entrance.

“Please avoid the area due to flying debris and emergency vehicles,” the post said. “There have been multiple reports of debris (not just from KFC) hitting and damaging vehicles.”

The front of the Carrs grocery store in Palmer was coated in thick ice cascading from broken pipes and a portion of the roof had been blown off. Two cars were frozen in ice outside the store.

At the Valley Hotel, a sign flew through a window in the cafe on Sunday, said guest Angela McKensie. A few women sitting nearby were injured by the glass, she said. Others in the cafe rushed to help them, McKensie said, and the window has since been boarded up.

In the parking lot, debris from nearby buildings continued to fly through the air Monday, said Samantha Gardner, who works as a front desk clerk. Several campers in the parking lot blew over.

Small airplanes were flipped upside down at the Palmer Municipal Airport on Sunday.

The ADN’s Loren Holmes contributed to this story.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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