Winter strikes fast

Snow delays school and blocks flights

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

The sudden snowstorm that whirled through Juneau overnight, delaying flights and slowing traffic, has some local avalanche experts concerned about possible slides.

The heavy snowfall and high winds of the past 24 hours, on top of a layer of ice already on mountainsides, make conditions ripe for a large snowslide, said avalanche specialist Bill Glude with the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

"It's like if you poured sugar on a piece of glass and then poured a whole lot of flour on it," said Glude. "The first layer of dry powdery snow has nothing to adhere to, and as it loads, it just stacks and eventually slides right off."

Glude said backcountry areas were most at risk for slides. But he said if heavy snow continues throughout the day, people in urban slide zones should be cautious. Such zones include Thane Road, Basin Road, part of the Behrends Avenue neighborhood and the White subdivision below Mount Juneau, Glude said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Ainsworth said to expect a 24-hour storm total of 20 to 25 inches of snow with the wind gradually dying down.

"An old weather adage is: The wind usually blows ahead of a storm or just behind, usually not both," said Ainsworth. "We should see the worst of the winds are over now."

Wednesday night saw gusts up to 68 mph on Douglas and at Eaglecrest with gusts up to 59 mph downtown. The highest gust, 140 mph, was recorded around 7 p.m. at the top of the Mount Roberts Tramway, Ainsworth said. The Mendenhall Valley had milder winds with 22 mph at the airport, he said.

Though the winds varied, all of Juneau received about 10 inches of snow overnight, Ainsworth said.

By mid-morning, three flights in and out of town had been canceled and passengers were stacked up at airports from Southeast to Southcentral as high winds and low visibility grounded planes, according to Jack Evans, spokesman for Alaska Airlines.

"It's really a mess right now all the way through Southcentral. The Anchorage airport is nearly closed down," Evans said. "Today is probably not a good day to be traveling."

Evans said passengers who have flights scheduled for later today should call ahead or check the Alaska Airlines Web site to see if their flights have been canceled.

"Unless the weather lets up, we are just sitting tight," Evans said.

Even if a flight is canceled, it may be worth showing up at the airport. A small break in the weather will be used to get some flights out, Evans said.

"As soon as the weather breaks we try to get flights in and out because we know, especially in Southeast, it can close right back down again."

Most motorists seem to be adjusting to the weather. Sgt. Kevin Siska said no major snow-related accidents were reported overnight or early this morning.

"People seem to be slowing down, which is really good - although they don't really have a choice because there's so much snow out there," said Siska. "In fact, the only reports we've had, that I know of, have just been cars getting stuck in intersections."

Siska said no road closures are planned as long as plowing continues throughout the day.

The roads did delay school buses, which ran an hour late today, said Ron DeLay, director of student services at Juneau School District.

The district broadcast the later bus times over radio stations starting at 6:30 this morning.

"The plowing has been done. ... We're going to stay open," DeLay said.

Public schools were open at the usual time this morning and the school day is expected to end at the usual time, he said.

Some events, such as the Thursday Night Contra Dance at the Terry Miller Legislative Offices, were canceled due to weather.

Skiers and snowboarders can play in new snow at Eaglecrest, said Jeffra Clough, director of the Eaglecrest Ski and Snowboard School.

"At the top of the mountain it's really hard to tell because it's really wind-blown," she said. "But there are pockets of powder, and in the trees it's very light, wonderful powder."

The ski patrol was on avalanche patrol this morning, checking snow conditions to ensure skiers won't trigger a slide. They covered the runs directly off of the lifts first, and planned to check the west and east bowls - which skiers and snowboarders have to hike to reach - next.

"This is huge," Clough said. "This is a real winter storm. It's great for us. ... We haven't had snow like this all season."

Meteorologist Ainsworth said over the next five days, people can expect to see gradually higher temperatures and more rain than snow. He said the front blew in with a directional change in the wind. Where the wind was coming from the Yukon it's now coming from the southwest heading northeast.

"They (winds) did a complete 180," Ainsworth said. "So basically the winds that were blowing the storm away from Juneau for a week are now blowing it toward Juneau.

"Each wave of precipitation in the coming days should bring warmer weather. By Saturday we should be back to the gray rainy weather we're used to."

Empire reporters Melanie Plenda, Julia O'Malley, Eric Fry and Christine Schmid contributed to this article.



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