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Alaska towns deal with cruel grip of winter

By Rachel D'oro

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 9 2012 4:49 p.m. MST

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — One town is buried in snow. Another is iced in. This year's winter is being meaner than usual for at least two Alaska communities.

Now, residents are looking for outside help.

Dozens of National Guard members are helping the fishing town of Cordova dig out from mountains of snow that collapsed roofs, triggered avalanches and trapped some people in homes.

By one count, more than 10 feet of snow has fallen in the town of 2,000 in the last few weeks.

With high winds, more snow and possibly rain in the forecast, responders and local volunteers were trying Monday to shovel out buildings considered most at risk.

Almost 700 miles to the northwest, the old gold rush town of Nome is iced-in, awaiting the arrival of a Russian fuel tanker that's barely inching along in its mission to deliver fuel.

A Coast Guard vessel is cutting a path in the thick ice of the Bering Sea, but ship crews are encountering challenges that are sometimes forcing the vessels to come to a complete stop.

All of it means that the town could potentially face a fuel shortage.

This winter, almost 15 feet of snow has fallen on Cordova, with a series of bursts that ended with a rain drenching over the weekend that added substantial weight to the snow and slicked up the landscape.

The town issued a disaster declaration Friday, prompting the National Guard to send more than 70 troops Sunday. Heavy equipment, including a snow-melting machine, also arrived Sunday to supplement local resources.

"It's just been relentless, just nonstop," city spokesman Allen Marquette said Monday. "This year is just accumulating."

Some roofs have collapsed or partially caved-in under the wet snow that's at least six feet high on some buildings. So far, no injuries have been reported.

At the Coho CafÉ restaurant and bar, the roof of a back shed caved in when snow from the restaurant's pitched roof slid off and hit it Saturday evening. The restaurant wasn't opened and no one was hurt.

Kara White, a waitress and bar tender, heard the surreal roar of the collapse. "There's no description for it," she said, during a break from shoveling.

At the First National Bank branch, workers arrived Monday to find an interior wall had buckled.

Bank spokeswoman Cheri Gillian said the steel-frame building is considered structurally sound, but the bank will remain closed — possibly operating out of a nearby church — until someone can inspect it.

Meanwhile, shifting ice in the Bering Sea was making it more difficult for the Russian tanker to deliver fuel to Nome.

Nome needs diesel and unleaded gasoline after a fall fuel delivery by barge was delayed by a storm. By the time the weather had improved, barge delivery to an iced-in town of about 3,500 people was impossible.

The Coast Guard's only functioning icebreaker was leading the way Monday and providing a path for the tanker as the two vessels moved slowly toward Nome. The 370-foot tanker is loaded with 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products. Around noon Monday, the vessels were about 150 miles from Nome.

A Coast Guard spokesman said the tanker and the Coast Guard Cutter Healy were encountering "some really dynamic ice" that is slowing the mission.

The icebreaker is creating a path for the tanker, which is following as closely as is safe. But as the tanker moves forward, the ice is shifting and at times pinching the sides, the Coast Guard said. The icebreaker has had to double back and open another channel to take pressure off the tanker.

"As long as we're making progress, we're going to Nome," said Anchorage Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class David Mosley. "The Coast Guard cutter Healy has the ability to make it all the way to Nome."

Nome has enough fuel for now and is not in dire need. However, if the delivery is not made, the community probably will run short of certain petroleum products before a barge delivery in late spring.

Jason Evans, board chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., the company arranging for the fuel delivery, was optimistic Monday. "I think we are getting to Nome," he said.

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