Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said 1996 was the last time an Anchorage storm produced as much snowfall as the amount that fell this week. The last time Anchorage experienced more snow over three days was in 2018.
Drivers grappled with chaotic road conditions and plow operators were out in full force as Anchorage dug out from a storm that dumped between 1 and 2 feet of snow on much of the city by Wednesday evening, prompting local school closures that extended into Thursday.
Some parts of the Anchorage Hillside were buried under more than 2 feet of snow.
Stranded vehicles dotted Anchorage roadways, especially on side streets that had yet to be plowed. With so much snow falling in less than 24 hours, Street Maintenance Manager Paul VanLandingham with the Municipality of Anchorage said it has been difficult for crews to keep up.
Street maintenance crews began working Tuesday night, VanLandingham said. But even with the 21 graders and six sanders in action, he said, some main roads appeared as if they hadn’t been plowed at all because the snow had fallen so fast.
“Some of our Muldoon streets, we plowed them about 9:30 this morning and I just drove them and there’s an additional 10 inches on them, so you can’t even tell they’ve been plowed,” he said. “So it’s going to be a struggle. It’s going to be a slow go for us.”
From Tuesday into Wednesday afternoon, 210 vehicles were reported in distress to Anchorage police, a spokeswoman said. There were 34 collisions, six of which included injuries.
Triton Fearnside, who owns Tiny’s Towing and operates a truck, said his phone has been ringing nonstop since Tuesday night.
“The main roads aren’t too bad, but your side roads — I’m pulling people out of their driveways, people are getting stuck in parking lots,” he said.
In downtown Anchorage, employees at The Kobuk left the shop to help push out a vehicle that had become stuck in the deep snow that afternoon. The road remained unplowed on Fifth Avenue at 3 p.m., said Tasha Bardwell, the store’s retail manager.
Getting to work was a challenge for all the employees and most were unable to make it to the store because of the snow, Bardwell said. Several employees stopped on their way to work to help other drivers push their vehicles out of the snow, she said.
“I was stuck last night trying to leave here,” Bardwell said. “I got stuck again on just a road trying to leave my house, I live over on 12th and G and had to call an Uber. It cost three times the amount it normally does, and I had to walk two blocks to get it.”
The only customers for the day were nearby hotel guests who walked to the store, Bardwell said. Sidewalks downtown were cleared, she said.
The slow plowing was frustrating to Bardwell, who said the poor road conditions made her fear for her own safety as well as for other drivers in town.
“This is impacting people’s lives and safety, and it’s scary,” she said.
Conditions on state-maintained roads, including the Glenn, Seward and Parks highways, were also difficult Wednesday.
State crews prioritized plowing main roadways, including the Seward Highway from Girdwood to Anchorage, the Glenn Highway from Anchorage to the Knik River and Minnesota Drive, said Justin Shelby, the administrative operations manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation’s central region. Every available operator was working Wednesday, he said.
Shelby estimated crews in the Anchorage area would have main roads plowed and start clearing arterial roads by late afternoon or evening on Wednesday.
Municipal street maintenance crews were set to begin hauling snow Wednesday night and into Thursday from downtown and make room for parking, VanLandingham said. They also planned to clear main neighborhood streets that lead to a collector roadway.
“We’re trying to reduce the length of streets that people will have to navigate before they hit something that is plowed,” he said.
At 6:30 a.m. Thursday, crews will begin to plow out residential neighborhoods, VanLandingham said. Crews will work 24/7 for at least the next week to clear the roads, he said.
Nine of the department’s graders are broken down, he said. None need major repairs, but VanLandingham said supply chain issues have led to longer wait times to get parts needed to fix the machinery. He said he hopes to have the full fleet operational in the next three or four days.
The department is also short-staffed. They normally operate with about 78 to 80 employees, VanLandingham said, but 13 or 14 full-time positions are currently open.
“What this does is it just kind of limits the extra things we could do, like maybe putting a couple more guys in a dump truck somewhere and helping haul some dead ends or some alleys,” he said. “We’ll get our core goals done of plowing the streets, but when you have a couple extra people if you get this much snow it’s always nice. ... It just reduces our options on being able to adapt to do some things differently.”
VanLandingham said he understands that it’s frustrating when the roads aren’t clear. He asked drivers to give crews room to work and be patient as they try to “do the best job we can.”
Fearnside said this is the heaviest snow he’s seen on roads in years. Nearly every towing company in town had at least a two- to three-hour wait Wednesday morning, he said.
“Stay home — it’s not worth it,” Fearnside advised drivers. “If you don’t have a good four-wheel drive, then don’t come out. And not one of the little ones, like a Subaru, because you’re just going to be pushing snow with your bumper. Let them get the snow moved before you come out or you’re going to end up paying me a couple hundred bucks to move your car.”
Snow totals varied widely throughout Anchorage. At the National Weather Service office, near the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, 13.4 inches of snow was recorded, meteorologist Christian Landry said. On the Hillside, there was a report of 28 inches, he said.
Other reports throughout town showed upward of 17 inches of snow. VanLandingham said he measured roughly 24 inches near Service High School.
The snow tapered off into the afternoon and largely wrapped up Wednesday evening.
In March of this year, a storm dropped over a foot of snow in Anchorage during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod.
There were few reports from the western Kenai Peninsula, but Landry said 6 inches was recorded Tuesday evening in Soldotna. The area likely didn’t see much additional snow, he said, because the system shifted northeast and sat over the area from Anchorage to Big Lake.
There were reports of 13 inches of snow in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys. A meteorologist said 15 inches was recorded in Big Lake. Roads in the area were in better condition than in Anchorage, Shelby said.
The Mat-Su Borough School District also kept schools closed Wednesday, opting for a “remote learning day.”
Temperatures were expected to drop significantly throughout Anchorage and the Matanuska and Susitna valleys after the storm, Kutz said. High temperatures are expected to be in the single digits in West Anchorage and below zero in East Anchorage through the weekend.
Wind gusts up to 20 mph were expected in the Anchorage area later Wednesday, which Kutz said could cause blowing snow and further complicate driving.
The wind paired with fresh snowfall will also elevate avalanche risk throughout the region in coming days, said Andrew Schauer, a lead forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.
“For the past week and a half we’ve been dealing with relatively stable conditions and it’s been fairly safe to get out and get onto the slopes, but that has all changed starting last night,” Schauer said Wednesday. “Now our advice is to dial things back, stick to lower angle slopes and just be aware that it is likely that a person will be able to trigger an avalanche big enough to bury someone.”
Power outages impacted thousands of homes on Tuesday and Wednesday in Anchorage and the Mat-Su. Heavy snow downed wires and it was challenging for crews to get through the deep snow to repair problems, according to Chugach Electric. Most outages near Anchorage had been restored by Wednesday evening, although just over 1,000 Matanuska Electric Association customers were without power around 5 p.m., according to the cooperation’s outage map.