Snow-laden Alaska towns dig out from huge pile-up

By Rachel D'oro

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 17 2012 8:01 p.m. MST

In this Jan. 14, 2012 file photo, snow and ice are plowed on a roadway in Valdez, Alaska. Valdez, a snow magnet about 120 miles east of Anchorage, has received almost 27 feet of snow this winter, compared with the more than 15 feet for the same time period in an average season.

The Anchorage Daily News, Marc Lester, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Students are back in class. Vulnerable roofs are shoveled for the most part. Snow removal crews are getting a breather as skies stay clear over this corner of Alaska.

Life is back to normal for two towns deeply buried in snow in Prince William Sound. The National Weather Service said Tuesday the weather is supposed to remain clear in both Valdez and Cordova this week, with no more snow forecast in Cordova until next week.

"I'm seeing people smile and they don't seem so panicked," said Cordova city spokesman Allen Marquette. He said the priority — at least for him — is to move snow at the base of homes in time to make room for the next snowfall.

Valdez, a snow magnet about 120 miles east of Anchorage, has received almost 27 feet of snow this winter, compared with more than 15 feet for the same time period in an average season. Michele Tompkins, who works for the city of 4,300, described the break in the weather with two words: "It's wonderful."

Cordova, 50 miles to the south, has received nearly 16 feet of snow — almost twice the snow it gets in an average winter. Cordova was so overwhelmed by the white stuff, the town issued a disaster declaration, prompting the Alaska National Guard to send 57 troops to help remove snow. The wallop also put a run on snow shovels and raised worries about avalanche dangers.

The guard members left the community of 2,200 on Monday, eight days after they arrived. The state estimates the cost of paying for the guard members, bringing in heavy equipment to Cordova, fuel and other costs at $775,000, said emergency management spokesman Jeremy Zidek.

"They were pretty happy to be doing that mission," he said of the guard. "One of the reasons people join the guard is to help communities in need."

In the midst of the crisis, the snow caused roof collapses or partial collapses in three commercial buildings, damaged several homes and piled up so high on and around an apartment complex that it had to be evacuated, Marquette said.

The apartment residents are staying elsewhere in town. Cordova fire marshal Paul Trumblee said the building has been shoveled but it must still be checked by a structural engineer hired by the owner before it can be cleared for re-opening.

Marquette said his own home was among the damaged structures around town. A large spruce tree right next to his house held a huge amount of snow on the roof with its branches. The weight slightly cracked sheet rock and pressed down hard on a door so it wouldn't open. Seven people worked on clearing the mess, using hand saws to cut three blocks of snow and ice that weighed several hundred pounds each. Marquette estimates the load at 20 tons.

Still, he was sorry to see the spruce and three smaller trees cut down.

"We felt badly about it," he said. "But you hate to lose your home."

In Valdez, which is used to more snow, the town has hired scores of temporary workers to help with snow removal, paying them more than $20 an hour. Some were still on the job Tuesday. The city also has emergency crews ready for such jobs as clearing snow from outdoor residential tanks that contain fuel used to heat homes.

Tompkins experienced for herself how daunting that can be. Earlier this month, she intended to clear off her 500-gallon tank so she could call the fuel company for more diesel fuel. Tompkins, who is 5 foot 1 inches tall, fell through a soft spot in the snow, landing chest-deep.

"It took 10 minutes to get myself out," she said. "My daughter had to come and help me out."

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