ANCHORAGE — An Alaska community blitzed by nearly 15 feet of snow braced Tuesday for another blizzard and a new problem — a shortage of shovels.
“We can’t locate hardly any in the state,” said Allen Marquette, a spokesman for the city of Cordova on the east side of Prince William Sound. “We’re trying to find some down in Seattle to get shipped up.”
The snow-weary city of 2,200 was bracing for another storm after the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning.
The storm has already caused avalanches along the Seward Highway, halting traffic within Alaska’s largest city and cutting off downtown Anchorage from neighborhoods to the south in Girdwood. It knocked out power to parts of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula.
KMXT-radio in Kodiak said flights to the island city had been canceled and three boats sank in local harbors from the weight of snow. In Valdez, the terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline, forecasters issued a blizzard warning through Wednesday afternoon, with winds to 45 mph and accumulations of 9 of 17 inches of snow on the Richardson Highway at Thompson Pass, the road access out of the community.
In Cordova, a fishing community famed for wild Copper River salmon, snow piled up to 6 feet high on roofs. Accumulations on roofs and walls collapsed at least two roofs.
Dealing with the white stuff has turned into a near military operation.
City, state and federal authorities set up a command center to organize its response to the snow emergency. One task: deciding who gets their roof or entryway shoveled first. The community set up a call-in number to report access problems or roof hazards.
“We’re sending out teams to assess,” Marquette said. “Everybody thinks it’s serious, but you have to go out and assess to prioritize ones that need it the most.”
The Alaska National Guard has sent over 57 soldiers, mostly to wield shovels. The U.S. Coast Guard contributed at least 20 personnel to clean docks and help maintain heavy equipment.
A “tremendous outreach” of volunteers helped their neighbors clear roofs or clear paths to buildings, Marquette said. But as they perform the backbreaking work of moving snow by hand, they’re running through shovels.
“Part of it is, the light fluffy snow is no more,” Marquette said. “It’s the heavier, wetter stuff. A lot of these shovels are plastic. These are big strong people, and so you’re bound to have some equipment that gets damaged and broken. So we need to keep replenishing and repairing and getting those back out on the line so they can get the work done.”
The city was looking for ice chisels, snow shovels and snow scoops that push snow.
“Those are real handy for flat roofs, and we were short on those,” Marquette said. “So what they’ve been doing is using tarps — those blue plastic tarps — and then shoveling snow on them and dragging the tarps to the edge and flipping them off. That’s been working pretty well but it would still be more efficient and faster if they could use regular snow scoops.”
Coast Guardsmen cleared docks at one Cordova harbor and worked on another Tuesday. National Guard soldiers had concentrated on city buildings such as the museum, library and high school and “put a good dent into the situation,” Marquette said.
Ice on the city hospital made shoveling hazardous and workers dug from their knees, he said.
Danger from the storm Tuesday kept workers off roofs. Shoveling can create a small avalanche on the building, he said.
“You’ve got so much load on the roof, that once you break enough of it loose, the whole thing cuts loose, and if you’re in the path of it, it takes you with it,” he said. “It’s not unheard of it get buried in that and it’s just like a regular avalanche, only a small one. But you have a few tons or more of snow and ice coming down — that’s pretty hazardous.”
The city has set up an emergency shelter for people in homes near an area about 5.5 miles from the city that is prone to avalanches. A woman was killed in January 2001 when an avalanche flattened her home.
A weekend avalanche lowered the threat level, Marquette said, but families were asked to evacuate. The current storm could reload the field, he said.
Meanwhile, the city continues to seek snow scoops and shovels, Marquette said.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? The state of Alaska — you’d think they’d be ahead of the game. It’s those logistical things you just don’t plan on, or you don’t think is going to be an issue.”