Snow-wary Valdez shovels out the town
Classes resume but some buildings remain closed
Photo courtesy of Dave and Linda Rentel
This photo from 8.5 Mile residents shows some people still have a sense of humor about the snow. Others are ready to shove it.
The denizens of Valdez pulled out their shovels last week and got to work digging themselves – and much of the town’s infrastructure – out from under the 322 inches of snow that has fallen since October of last year. As it turns out, the volume of snow itself was only part of the problem. The sheer weight of the accumulated snow on rooftops caused ceilings to droop in some homes and prompted the city to open its emergency operations center to manage city-owned buildings that had unsafe snow loads.
A wave of colder snow-free weather swept into town Friday, bringing with it gusty winds. Despite the sometimes punishing cold, many welcomed the reprieve from back-to-back blizzards that dumped over 12 feet of snow in December and another eight feet and a few inches since New Year’s Day.
“The break in the weather certainly helps,” City Manager John Hozey said in a meeting with officials Friday.
While the break in snowfall has been a boon to people who are sore from shoveling or just plain tired of dealing with mountains of snow, the National Weather Service was predicting snows to return Saturday. It also predicts cooler temperatures to remain at 10 to 20 degrees.
And don’t forget, the really snowy months of February and March are yet to come.
Peggy Perales, official at the Valdez office of the National Weather Service, said the town should brace itself.
“If we continue on this track, we will more than likely reach a 600 inch snow year,” Perales said in a report to the Valdez City Council during an update meeting held Wednesday.
Officials and department heads of most major institutions in Valdez met at the meeting to address mounting concerns that the weight of the snow was causing structural damage to commercial, residential and city-owned buildings.
“The purpose of this meeting is to bring everyone up to date on the situation in town,” Mayor Dave Cobb said.
Hermon Hutchens Elementary School had already closed the day before due to snow loads accumulated on its roof that weighed in excess of 97 pounds per square foot. The school’s roof was designed to hold only 90 pounds. The roof of Valdez High School soon followed suit.
Hozey reported shortages of extra industrial-grade snow removal equipment and an unavailability of temporary workers to man equipment on order.
“It’s a supply and demand economy,” Hozey said, noting the city was having difficulty recruiting snow shovelers - even after raising the hourly wage to $20. “We’ve had to raise our rates twice.”
He also raised the specter of declaring an emergency and asking the State of Alaska to step in to fill the void of needed equipment and workers.
“Valdez prides itself as the snow capital of Alaska,” he said. Declaring an emergency due to too much snow?
“It would, frankly, be humiliating,” he said.
But he and some council members spoke during the meeting as if declaring an emergency was inevitable.
Councilman Joe Prax became incensed at the concept and said declaring an emergency because Valdez had a lot of extra snow would be asinine.
“We need to use our resources first,” he said, noting Valdez is a wealthy community that routinely deals with snow and if resources were put towards recruiting shovelers from outside the Valdez area and it was likely the manpower shortage problem would be solved.
“I don’t want to declare an emergency unless it is absolutely necessary,” he said. “We may reach a point – very soon – where we just can’t do it” but that time has not yet occurred.
By Friday, city snow removal operations were running smoother according to Hozey.
A second special meeting was convened at council chambers, which also doubled as the city’s snow-emergency operations center.
“I think we’ve made an awful lot of progress in the last 48 hours,” Hozey reported, though it took awhile to “implement and fine tune” the city’s emergency plan.
Streets were cleared, the former Sea Otter RV Park was prepped to become a giant snow dump so that lots holding snow in town can be cleared for more snow storage in the coming months. Snow shovelers flowed into town at “an impressive rate,” and city workers had been able to come to the aid of citizens that asked for city help.
Then the real work began. City schools were given top priority, but other city buildings were also in dire need. The Civic Center was close to exceeding its snow load rating, as was the Valdez Museum and many other city structures.
Work continued over the weekend with only minimal closures of public facilities.
The US Coast Guard played a significant role in aiding city residents and public works in the efforts, which drew praise from both elected and administrative officials.
Copper Valley Electric Cooperative issued a notice to Valdez customers that its meter reader was reporting that approximately half of the electric meters were snow covered and inaccessible. CVEA issued a press release warning consumers that the co-op would have no choice but to “ send a bill based on estimated usage,” CVEA said.“The estimate is determined by taking the average of the previous three months and the same month of the previous year (if applicable). Once conditions improve, an actual meter read will be used to true up the usage.”
Part of the city’s response plan to the snow-related problems is to aid citizens who cannot physically and financially deal with snow around their homes. A city crew has been dedicated to helping those in need dig out fuel tanks and emergency exits from their homes.
Another problem that ate into manpower is the fact that many of those whose job it is to respond to emergencies have snow issues of their own to deal with.
Sean McAlister, executive director of Providence Valdez Medical Center, noted that a number of hospital employees were stressed with childcare issues after classes were canceled at city schools last week and the town’s lone daycare, Puffin Learning Center, closed for a day while its snow issues were dealt with.
Valdez Star photo
Councilman Joe Prax appeared angry that some city officials were considering crying Uncle and declaring an emergency in hopes of receiving state assistance in dealing with the copious snow load. Prax said the idea was asinine.
“Operations in the hospital are fine,” he said at the meeting.
The Civic Center, the Teen Center and Valdez Consortium Library have experienced periodic closures due to snow removal issues according to the city.
The US Coast Guard has also been on the job, maintaining its own facilities while adding to the city’s volunteer workforce.
From an operational standpoint “We’re ready to execute all missions assigned to us,” Commander Benjamin Hawkings told council.
“This is our home too,” he said, “We live, work and play here.”