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Road to Valdez blocked indefinitely as water impounded by avalanches hampers cleanup

Laurel Andrews
DOT crews remove debris north of the avalanche near mile 16 of the Richardson Highway. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Ice and debris deposited on the Richardson Highway as flood water recedes. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Photos taken during an aerial reconnaissance of debris on the roadway and damming of Lowe River north of Valdez following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Water gushes from the dammed Lowe River north of Valdez through an old Alaska railroad tunnel. Photo taken during an aerial reconnaissance by city of Valdez officials. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
The Richardson Highway covered in snow and debris following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Water draining from the dammed Lowe River following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Keystone Canyon, flooded following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A lake created by avalanches that dammed the Lowe River over the weekend that is complicating the removal of debris from the roadway. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
The Richardson Highway covered in water and debris, as seen during a aerial reconnaissance of the roadway following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A lake created following avalanches that dammed the Lowe River north of Valdez over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Avalanches swept through Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon north of Valdez over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Photo taken during an aerial reconnaissance of debris on the roadway and damming of Lowe River north of Valdez following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A wall of snow lines the Richardson Highway as crews work to remove snow from the roadway. Feb. 2 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Massive avalanches closed the Richardson Highway near Valdez.
Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security team
Snow lines the Richardson highway as crews work to remove more than 40 feet of snow from the roadway following a series of avalanches in late January. Feb. 2 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Massive avalanches closed the Richardson Highway near Valdez over the weekend.
Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security team
Crews terrace snow from the roadway to prevent snow from falling back onto the Richardson Highway. Feb. 1 2014
Courtesy Office of the Governor
Looking south, after flood waters have receded from a lake created after the Lowe River was dammed following a series of avalanches. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation

The city of Valdez remained shut off from Alaska's road system Monday in the aftermath of a series of avalanches that slid through Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon beginning on Friday, north of the community that sits on the shores of Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska.

The Richardson Highway remained closed from mile 12 to 42, and Alaska Department of Transportation officials said during a Monday press conference that there was no clear timeline for when the road might reopen.

“This is really an extraordinary event,” said Mike Coffey, DOT statewide maintenance engineer.

While the area at the 16 mile mark of Richardson Highway in Keystone Canyon -- aptly nicknamed “snow slide path” -- is prone to avalanches, DOT has “probably never seen” so much snow and debris impacting the roadway, Coffey said.

Complicating the situation is a lake that was created when avalanches dammed the Lowe River over the weekend. The river was first dammed by a natural avalanche, Coffey said, and a second avalanche that was triggered by DOT blasting further compounded the dam.

Crews are unable to start clearing the road from the north until water drains from the roadway. They are likewise barred from clearing from the south of the road, downhill from the lake, because flooding dangers could put crews in harm’s way if the dam ruptured.

There’s “no safe way to relieve this water,” said Jason Sakalaskas, northern region maintenance engineer with DOT.

Water levels have been fluctuating. “The rising and falling of the lake has been fluid, literally, and we’ve kind of been at its mercy,” Coffey said.

Sakalaskas said that the lower river was beginning to flow on Monday, however, and DOT was “currently working to drain the elevation of the water on the north side of the dam.”

During an aerial reconnaissance Monday afternoon, Valdez City Manager John Hozey noted that water was releasing naturally in several areas, and the lake appeared to be draining.

Hozey has lived in Valdez for more than eight years, and has seen routine road closures, but nothing to this extent. “It’s an impressive pile of snow,” Hozey said.

Roadway debris is 20 to 50 feet deep, while the debris blocking the river is roughly 100 feet deep, DOT estimates.

"Not only are we dealing with the debris on the road and the cleanup that’s going to require," Coffey said, but there are still unstable conditions in the mountains. An aerial reconnaissance Monday by the DOT showed that the snowpack on the mountains is still active and unstable, and DOT is continuing to clear avalanches until those areas are deemed stable. DOT is hoping for cooler weather to kick in, to help stabilize the snow.

Once the water does recede, both contractors and DOT personnel will begin removing the snow from roadways, with 6 to 10 people working during each shift. DOT believes the Richardson Highway will not be permanently damaged by the avalanches, save guardrails lining the sides of the road.

“Roadways are rarely damaged,” Sakalaskas said.

Meanwhile, the ferry schedule has been shifted to increase ferry service to the city three times a day, said deputy commissioner Reuben Yost, and folks can book now their ferry services on the Alaska Marine Highway System website.

The series of avalanches, caused by warm weather and rain on snowpack, caused the road closure beginning Friday morning. Three major avalanches slid down Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon, and several smaller ones were triggered as well. The largest avalanche was 60 to 70 feet high, and between 900 to 1,500 feet long -- and that’s just accounting for the area along the road, DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said on Sunday.

Fears that the snow dam holding back water in Keystone Canyon would break and flood the Alpine Subdivision, located two miles from the canyon and home to roughly 100 people, were assuaged Monday, as the state hydrologist advised that dam failure is “considered very unlikely.”

Water is flowing beneath the snow pack, and through an old tunnel that used to be the original highway. That water flow is decreasing, said Holly Wolgamott, deputy city clerk for Valdez, on Monday morning. “It’s not moving so fast that it’s causing flooding yet,” she said.

The main concern Monday was localized flooding west of the canyon.

A voluntary evacuation for the Alpine Subdivision was still in place, and a shelter set up at the Teen Center will be open indefinitely, Wolgamott said. She noted that while some folks have chosen to evacuate, they are staying with friends in town. Nobody was staying at the shelter Monday. The city is asking residents of the subdivision to be prepared to evacuate immediately should the sirens go off in that area.

The city’s single grocery store, a Safeway, confirmed that six trailers’ of food and supplies arrived Monday morning, and employees were re-stocking the shelves. Store Manager Matthew Ficek said the store was “actually in really good shape.”

The produce and dairy departments were cleared out over the weekend, but a shipment brought in on Monday was filling up the shelves again. Because food is brought in by barge, “there wasn’t much of a panic,” he said.

Both food and fuel come to Valdez via barge, city spokesperson Sheri Pierce said Sunday, and the city wasn’t experiencing any shortages. 

Schools remained open on Monday, and the city's airport and port facilities remained fully functional.

Valdez resident Kimberly Fagerberg said that life was continuing as normal in the Southcentral city. “We’re pretty used to extreme weather,” she said, be it downed power lines, washed out roads, or heavy snowfall.

Fagerberg’s husband, semi-truck driver Kris Fagerberg, found himself caught between two avalanches on Friday morning as he left Valdez to deliver fuel to Anchorage. Kimberly woke up Friday morning to news of the avalanches circulating on Facebook. “That was horrifying,” Kimberly said. “For a while there, there was no cell service, so I couldn’t get a hold of him.”

Kris called her around 8:30 a.m. from a DOT phone to tell her he was safe. He had narrowly missed one of the major avalanches that cascaded down the Keystone Canyon shortly after he passed through. “He actually left a little earlier than he normally leaves,” Kimberly said. “There was definitely a guardian angel there that kept him safe.”

Kimberly has been in Valdez for 12 years, and said the close-knit community always bands together in times like these.

“It’s just really nice, the support you receive in this town,” she said.

Two people were arrested after they refused to abandon an attempt to travel closed portions of the Richardson Highway on foot Saturday, according to Alaska State Trooper dispatches. Those people had accessed through a closed DOT gate, Sakalaskas said. DOT had to stop blasting the hillside for several hours while they located and removed the people from the area.

DOT does not believe that any other individuals have been trapped or injured in the avalanches.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews