Snow loads addressed in joint work session
City and school officials address future snow removal
Valdez is nearing the end of its snow season, but memories of snow loads so large it required shuttering schools and some city buildings is lingering in the minds of elected officials.
“It wasn’t a perfect response initially,” Valdez Mayor Dave Cobb said during a joint-work session held by the council and school board to address issues that caused the first-ever closure of city schools due to dangerous amounts of snow that accumulated on the roofs.
The two groups reviewed a draft plan that will hand the duty of monitoring the weight of snow to the Valdez Fire Dept. and place the duty of removing snow to city snow shovelers.
The groups are also attempting to set guidelines that will determine when city-owned buildings – especially the schools – will be shoveled to avoid the issues that plagued the city and schools.
The National Weather Service website said Valdez has recorded 437.9inches this season, and much of that fell during the months of December and January, catching many people, including city officials, off guard.
By January 17, 322 inches of snow has fallen in Valdez, close to its early average of 324 inches. Over 12 feet of snow fell in December with another eight feet on top of that by mid-January.
It was the weight of the snow that began causing problems. And a lack of shovels, scoops, saws and the shovelers to use them exasperated the problems.
Hermon Hutchens Elementary School closed in mid-January after snow loads accumulated on its roof that weighed in excess of 97 pounds per square foot. The school’s roof is not considered safe at loads over 90 pounds, though it is not considered at risk for collapse. The roof of Valdez High School soon followed suit.
“We didn’t realize we were in a really bad place till we had that meeting January, 9,” District Superintendent Jacob Jensen said during the work session.
The roof at Gilson Junior High School got shoveled, but soon was covered in a second field of snow considered too heavy to allow the building to be occupied.
“I know the public was concerned about the closing of schools,” Cobb said.
School administrators had hired shovelers to begin working on the school roofs in December, but had trouble attracting people willing to work at its rate of $13 per hour. The December holidays further cut into the pool of people looking for work. The problem became more severe when the city began hiring shovelers at $16 per hour. The hourly rate was later upped to $20.
The city opened an emergency operations center to manage city-owned buildings that had unsafe snow loads and in many cases assist residents that were having trouble accessing fuel tanks or even getting in and out of their homes. It dedicated about half of its work force to snow removal efforts, ordered a large number of custom made snow removal equipment and got to shoveling.
During the meeting, John Hozey, the city manager, was quick to point out the difference between snow load rating and structural limits of buildings. The snow load rating is the amount of weight a roof can hold before it is considered prudent to not occupy the building. The structural limits of how much snow a roof can actually hold far exceeds its snow load rating, according to Hozey.
Hozey said a full report on the events leading up to the closures, that later included the Valdez Civic Center and other city buildings used by the public, will be forthcoming at the next meeting of the Valdez City Council which is slated for May 21.
City officials later estimated snow removal crews moved a whopping 50 million tons of snow in only four days according to Cobb.
“That’s pretty impressive,” he said.