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Extreme Weather Creates Alaskan Avalanche Disaster

Alaskans imprisoned by avalanches

Bulldozers, artillery used to try to reach towns cut off by huge slides

MSNBC staff and wire reports, Feb. 4, 2000

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Feb. 4 — Alaska state workers used massive bulldozers and cannons on Friday to attempt to clear a Kenai Peninsula highway buried by the state's worst avalanches in decades and reach thousands of people stranded since Sunday. Authorities also were considering authorizing a dangerous flight into the town of Girdwood, where about 2,000 people had been without electricity since Wednesday and fuel and supplies were running low.

Gov. Tony Knowles declared a state of emergency in the hard-hit region of south-central Alaska, which has been slammed by a series of heavy storms and powerful avalanches over the past 10 days that have killed two people.

Highway workers took advantage of slightly improved weather to attack the massive snowslides south of Anchorage that have closed the Seward Highway. Workers were using 105mm cannons and huge bulldozers to attempt to move the snow, which has stranded thousands of residents and travelers and cut power to a number of tiny communities on the Kenai Peninsula, a rugged, triangle-shaped land mass that juts into the Gulf of Alaska.

Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Administration were to assess the situation Friday before deciding whether to declare a federal emergency, which would make residents and businesses eligible for federal loans and other relief.

CORDOVA HIT HARD

Knowles did not cite an overall damage amount in his disaster declaration, but specifically mentioned areas such as the Prince William Sound city of Cordova, where a Jan. 26 avalanche caused $2.6 million in damage and killed a woman.

The 127-mile Seward Highway is the only road between the peninsula and Anchorage.

The extreme avalanche conditions have been caused by heavy snowfall, followed by rising temperatures. Anchorage, which normally gets about nine inches of snow in January, was buried under 34 inches last month, and temperatures during the past week have been in the 30s.

To alleviate some of the danger, highway crews have been using howitzers and explosives dropped from aircraft to trigger controlled avalanches along the highway.

On Tuesday, nine motorists were rescued by a police helicopter there after spending the night there trapped by a series of slides. Also, a railroad worker was killed as he worked to clear adjacent railroad tracks when an avalanche swept him and his bulldozer 500 feet.

STRANDED IN GIRDWOOD

In Girdwood, a ski resort town about , stranded travelers took refuge in bed and breakfasts, hotels and an emergency shelter set up at a school.

Fuel was running low in the town and the remainder of the dwindling supply was reserved for generators and emergency vehicles. A spokeswoman for the electrical utility said it could take a week to restore power to the communities, which was lost Wednesday after avalanches knocked down power lines.

Alaska state troopers in the snowed-in community attempted to close liquor stores in the town on Thursday out of concern that drinking would cause the frustrations of the bottled-up residents to boil over, but they backed down in the face of a public outcry, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The newspaper reported that if the highway crews were unable to reach the town on Friday, authorities planned to try to land a cargo plane carrying 55-gallon drums of fuel on the highway. The landing was described as very dicey, since the plane has a 63-foot wingspan and the roadway is only 65-feet wide and has 15-foot snow berms on either side.

Some residents complained that the state and federal government could already have cleared the roadway if the resources of several nearby military bases had been harnessed.

"Why isn't the military involved? You've got Fort Richardson and Elemendorf (Air Force Base) right there," Seward resident Debbie Velocci told the Anchorage newspaper.

But 70-year-old Darwin Peterson of Cooper Landing, who spent Monday night sleeping in his car after being cut off by two avalanches, said his neighbors should stop their belly-aching.

"These people don't have much to complain about," he told the Daily News. "Sleeping in a school is a lot better than sleeping in a snowbank."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Avalanche toll: $16 million
Donna Pistilli Sauer, weather.com, Feb. 15, 2000

The deadly avalanches that have struck Alaska's Chugach Mountains over the past three weeks have caused more than $16 million in damage, prompting the state's governor to request a federal disaster declaration.

Gov. Tony Knowles declared the region around Anchorage and along Prince William Sound a disaster area on Feb. 3, and on Friday sent a formal request to President Clinton for federal aid.

The 33 avalanches, triggered by heavy snows and hurricane-force winds, killed two people and buried roads, neighborhoods and power lines in several communities.

"The cost as of last Friday was in excess of $16 million," Adjutant Gen. Phil Oates, head of the Alaska National Guard and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said at a news conference Monday.

In his letter to the president, Knowles said that damage to public facilities exceeded $7.9 million and damage to homes was more than $1.2 million.

Additionally, "the state has already expended some $4.3 million in the response effort," Oates said.
Reuters Limited contributed to this report.




Avalanche Fusillade Creates Havoc for Alaskans

By The Associated Press, Feb. 3, 2000

ANCHORAGE, Feb. 3 -- The worst avalanches to hit Alaska in decades have cut power to about a half-dozen communities and closed the only highway linking the Kenai Peninsula with the rest of the state.

The slides left thousands of travelers stranded for a fourth day today and sealed some areas that rely on trucks to bring in the necessities of life.

"This is the worst we've had since the 70's for sure and probably before that," said Chris Kepler, a maintenance chief for the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. "We have rain and snow. We have all the ingredients for perfect avalanches."

About 2,000 people were without power and officials of Chugach Electric said it could be seven days or more before electricity was restored.

Even normally self-reliant Alaskans, used to living far from the conveniences of cities, still rely on trucks to bring fuel for generators and food for grocery stores. But the avalanches have left some tiny communities even more isolated than normal.

Gov. Tony Knowles was planning to seek federal disaster assistance, a spokesman said.

The avalanche conditions were caused by heavy snowfall followed by rising temperatures. Anchorage, which normally receives about 9 inches of snow in January, got 34 inches last month, and temperatures in the past week have been in the 30's. It rained on Wednesday.

The slides began on Sunday night and were continuing today. On Wednesday, a mile-long avalanche knocked out seven high-voltage power transmission lines, cutting power to Girdwood, Portage, Whittier and Hope.

Snow and milder weather continued today, while freezing fog made it difficult for aircraft to reach the area. Chugach State Park, a 500,000 acre playground for winter sports, was closed.

Highway crews have been using howitzers and explosives dropped from aircraft to trigger controlled avalanches along the Seward Highway, which hugs the Chugach Mountains to the west and the shoreline of Turnagain Arm to the east. But high winds and the danger of uncontrolled slides have hampered their efforts.

One railroad worker was killed when he was swept away by an avalanche on Tuesday while bulldozing tracks beside the Seward Highway.

Once the avalanche danger is reduced with controlled slides, bulldozers will be used to clear the estimated four miles of highway buried by up to 20 feet of snow.

Avalanche control efforts could last for weeks.

Some residents saw the halt in traffic as an opportunity to take a break. Others, desperate to get out of Girdwood, were plunking down $127 for one-wayhelicopter flights to Anchorage at a temporary helipad set up outside a convenience store.