Avalanches cut off road to Anchorage

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Massive avalanches - the worst to hit the state in decades - have closed the only highway linking the Kenai Peninsula with the rest of the state.

The avalanches left thousands of residents and travelers stranded for a fourth day and those in a half-dozen communities without electrical power.

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

Residents were being warned not to expect relief anytime soon. Kepler had no estimate on when the highway would be reopened and Chugach Electric had no estimate about when power would be restored.

Gov. Tony Knowles planned to seek federal disaster assistance and has been in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spokesman Bob King said.

The extreme avalanche conditions have been triggered by heavy snowfall, followed by warming temperatures. Anchorage, which normally receives about nine inches of snow in January, was buried under 34 inches during the month and temperatures during the past week have been in the 30s. It rained Wednesday.

The first slides began Sunday night and continued through 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 warm temperatures continued into today and freezing fog was making it difficult for aircraft to get into the area.

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 been hampering their efforts.

An avalanche killed a railroad worker Tuesday. Kerry Brookman, 53, was operating a bulldozer to clear railroad tracks adjacent to the Seward Highway when an avalanche roared down the side of a mountain and swept him and the bulldozer 500 feet.

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

Avalanche control efforts could last for weeks.

``Weather like this can continue through March. Clear into April we've had weather like this,'' Kepler said.

In the ski-resort town of Girdwood, 40 miles south of Anchorage, stranded travelers took refuge in bed and breakfasts, hotels and an emergency shelter set up at the school. Some residents saw the halt in traffic as an opportunity to take a break.

``Everybody's been partying it up,'' waiter Cory Hopper told the Anchorage Daily News.

But for others, the festive atmosphere was wearing thin. Those desperate to get out of Girdwood were plunking down $127 for one-way helicopter flights to Anchorage at a temporary heli-pad set up outside a convenience store.

Chugach State Park, Anchorage's half-million-acre playground for skiers, snowboarders and snowmachiners, has been temporarily closed because of the avalanche danger.

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