Challenges of coping with 290 inches of snow
City hall scrambles along with the citizenry to brace for more
Photo courtesy of Alyeska
A building at the Valdez Marine Terminal is cleared of snow by Houston Contracting Company workers according to Alyeska, the company that operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
People in Valdez are famous throughout Alaska for their ability to thrive in a small town that – on average – sees over 22 feet of snow each winter. But what happens when the town hits its yearly average in December – with the typically snowy months of February and March still weeks away?
On Wednesay morning, the National Weather Service reported that Valdez has surpassed 300 inches of snow not including the snow that keeps falling.
“This is only January,” Sheri Pierce, city clerk for the City of Valdez said. “We haven’t hit our snowiest months – that’s what has people scared.”
As the city’s public information officer, Pierce is at the center of the local government’s efforts to help the citizenry cope with the current snow depth and - perhaps more importantly – prepare for even more.
IF YOU NEED HELP
City hall is preparing to lend a helping hand.
People who are both truly physically and financially able to cope with a true snow emergency, such as blocked access to fuel tanks or buildings on the verge of collapse, may be eligible for city assistance in finding a remedy for the situation Pierce said.
“We will see what we can do to help them out if we can,” she said. “We have a small team of people who can do that.”
For the rest of us, aid can be gotten in the form of information.
“We have a list of snow shovelers” people can hire for snow removal, Pierce said.
People with concerns can also ask for a city inspection of their property if they feel there is an immediate danger and they do not have the resources to manage themselves.
Even homes that have snow-shedding roofs can run into trouble. The snow depth – the National Weather Service reported it to be at 7 feet and two inches - Tuesday morning – is at level or even higher than many roofs due to repeated shedding.
“It’s just horrible,” Pierce said, “Everybody’s shoveling up.”
The pitched roof on her home has reached such a level and needs attention.
“I’m just going to have to get up there and manually remove it,” she said. “This is crazy.”
With even more snow predicted for the coming days, Pierce said the city is recommending everyone clear a path to their fuel tanks, and if possible, have them filled before they get too low.
“If people can afford to fill their (fuel) tanks they should do it,” she said.
Snow should also be removed if it is blocking access to first floor windows and around ventilation systems outside the home according to the Valdez Fire Department.
For more information, call Valdez City Hall at 835-4313.
While Valdez is better equipped to deal with large amounts of snow than most Alaskan communities, shortages are occurring in the city. There are not enough bobcats for lease, aluminum snow scoops are scarce and it’s not easy to find people willing to use them.
“We are in dire need of snow scoops,” Peirce said. There are no industrial-grade snow scoops currently available off the shelf anywhere in the state.
“We tried to get ready-made ones in Anchorage,” she said, to no avail. Efforts to have them manufactured in Valdez have so far been fruitless. “We can’t just order them up.”
Efforts to have a large number made out-of-town are underway she said.
There is also a shortage of willing hands to move snow at the hourly rates paid by city hall. The City of Valdez pays $16.37 an hour for temporary snow shovelers. Many who are willing to do the intensive labor required to move heavy snow loads find they can earn much more in the private sector.
“They’re making whatever people will pay them to get snow off the buildings,” Pierce said.
The problem is even worse for the school district. By policy, it can pay only $14.35 an hour for snow shovelers. It had a handful of shovelers employed in the past few weeks, but that changed Monday.
“They all abandoned us today to go to the city,” Jacob Jensen, district superintendant, reported to the board of education Monday night when he also announcedthat Hermon Hutchens Elementary School would close Tuesday due to the building’s overloaded snow weight.
Other snow removal crews are earning much more in the private sector.
One business owner says he was quoted a price of $1,000 for a crew of four to clear a roof measuring 1500 square feet. While he managed to get the roof shoveled for considerably less, anecdotal evidence suggests snow shovelers are having a banner year.
Valdez has many snow related provisions in its city code. It mandates empty lots be available for snow storage in winter, prohibits cars from parking on city streets in snow season and spells out how and where people can move snow from their property. But with so much snow coming down, problems are inevitable.
“People need to be cautious of their neighbor,” Pierce said.
This means people need to be careful where they put snow they remove from their roofs, walkways and driveways. Watch for fuel lines – yours and your neighbors – especially when shoveling roofs. People need to also warn hired hands to avoid dumping snow on fuel lines.
People also need to take care not to dump snow on neighboring properties, especially in the mobile home parks.
It’s also important to remember it is illegal to push snow onto city streets. Snow removed from driveways by residents can be stored curbside only. If you hire a contractor to remove snow, they are required to take the snow to a city snow lot.
“That’s the other problem,” Pierce said. “The city snow lots are already full.”
But efforts are underway to push the snow up even higher to make room for more.
“There’s also the problem with people cleaning more snow than is necessary,” Pierce said. If the city sees someone clearing off more snow than the minimum needed “they’re just going to politely ask that they not do that.”
Fire hydrants are also a problem under this much snow. Pierce said the city has been working to dig out its fire hydrants, but “the public has been covering them back up when they remove snow,” she said. “Please don’t cover your fire hydrant once the city uncovers it.”
She also hopes to allay fears that fires cannot be put out when hydrants are snow covered.
“The tankers are always full of water,”Pierce said, referring to the city’s fire trucks full of water. “They don’t rely entirely on the hydrants.”
Valdez Star photo
A snow removal crew had to use a ladder to climb up the accumulated snow in the parking lot of the Glacier Sound Inn on Egan Street last Friday. The hotel, which is open only seasonally, was in bad need of snow removal. When crews finished removing the snow on the roof of the two-story building, it was level with the roof.
HOW MUCH MORE?
The current snow fall for this winter season was over 24 feet as of Tuesday morning with another foot or two expected to fall by Wednesday morning.
The large volumes expected in the coming months has many in Valdez remembering the winter of 1989/90. A mind-boggling 560.7 inches of snow fell on Valdez that season – and if current weather patterns hold through the coming months, the town could see a similar amount before summer begins.
“I was in sixth grade,” that winter said James Smith, a lifelong Valdez resident who is battling snow issues the same as everyone else.
“It was a lot more fun then,” Smith said. “I don’t remember being so sore then.”