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'Mega storm' slams parts of Alaska

Craig Medred

The forces of nature launched a full-blown spring offensive across much of Alaska on Wednesday, leaving a trail of devastation before pounding into the state's populated urban core on Thursday.

Subdivisions on the hills above Anchorage were being rocked by winds of up to 75 mph by Thursday morning. Blowing snow was creating ground-blizzard conditions making the morning commute an adventure for thousands. It was, as the city likes to promote itself, the "Big Wild Life."

There were no early reports of any significant damage but behind on the weather front to the west there was carnage. The National Weather Service reported winds of gusting to 100 and 110 mph reported entire buildings flattened in the tiny village of False Pass near the end of the Alaska Peninsula as a massive storm front first rolled in off the North Pacific Ocean.

At least two buildings lost their roofs, the windows of the local medical clinic were blown out, and four-wheelers were spent tumbling down the streets, but there were fortunately no reports of injuries.

As the storm moved onto land, its power appeared to weaken, but it was still tearing into coastal villages with winds up to 75 mph as it advanced on Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna. The majority of the state's 700,000 residents cluster in those two heavily developed and modernized areas.

The Weather Service was warning them to be on the alert. "Warning level winds, 75 mph or greater, will impact the upper Hillside (in Anchorage) through early this afternoon,'' a special weather service statement said. "These stronger gusts to 75 may also impact areas on the lower Hillside."

Anchorage itself, which sits in a somewhat protected bowl beneath the Chugach Mountains, was expected to get winds of only about 45 mph, and there was good news for skiers. Girdwood, site of the Alyeska Resort south of the city, was forecast to get at least five inches of new snow. Not that anyone was likely to get to it anytime soon. Blizzard conditions due to wind and blowing snow along Turnagain Arm were making driving treacherous on the Seward Highway, the only road south out of Anchorage.

North of the city, the threat was more of snow than wind as the storm spent its energy and began to fade. The Weather Service said "10 to 20 inches of snow is expected," possibly mixed with rain.

Twenty inches of wet, water-soaked snow can threaten to collapse roofs, and it is certain to trigger avalanches in backcountry areas.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center was hoping what it called "the 'mega storm' coming in" would keep skiers and snowmachiners pinned down in their homes. It warned of extreme danger for those traveling in off-road areas, noting the instability in the snowpack in many areas even before the new storm arrived in force.

There were, the center reported, several human-triggered avalanches on the Kenai Peninsula Wednesday.

"The most significant event was a full burial of a ski guide in the Placer/Skookum region," the report said. "The guide was working on stability assessment when the slope broke. The victim took a 500 foot ride, deployed an airbag, and was still fully buried 4-feet deep." He got lucky and survived.

Fortunately, the center reported, the path in which he slid was clear of boulders likely to kill people tumbling downhill in an avalanche no matter what safety gear they were using; his companions were able to quickly home on his avalanche beacon and dig him out; and he got his jacket around his face to create a small air pocket so he could breathe for some minutes after the avalanche ended.

Farther south of Anchorage, the Weather Service was recommending motors stay off the Richardson Highway, the only road link into the oil shipping port of Valdez. White-out conditions due to snow and blowing snow in Thompson Pass would make "travel extremely dangerous,'' an agency weather bulletin said. Winds up to 40 mph, accompanied by almost three feet of snow, were expected.

Batten down and hang on was the general advice. The storm was expected to begin to blow itself out Thursday evening as the front hit the towering, three-mile peaks of the Alaska Range.