Open for Business: Richardson Highway reopens early
DOT says stability tests on road say it is safe for all vehicles to use
Steve Revis photo
A Sherpa freight airplane operated by Ravn, formerly known as ERA Aviation, was called into duty last week to move 9,000 pounds of US Mail to Valdez in two separate flights after avalanches blocked highway traffic to and from town.
The Richardson Highway reopened to vehicular traffic at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, following a much anticipated announcement from the Alaska Dept. of Transportation Tuesday predicting a 3 p.m. re-opening.
It was not a moment too soon for Valdez residents, who have been relying solely on air and water transportation for over a week after a series of avalanches blocked the Richardson Highway, the town's only road access in or out of town.
"ADOT&PF has performed multiple stability tests to ensure the roadway can support heavy loads and equipment," DOT said in a press release Tuesday. "Test results have determined that the roadway is in good condition and can support both commercial and passenger vehicles."
Valdez police had been posted at the road closure gates at milepost 12 since a week ago Monday to keep the curious or just foolhardy out of the area.
"That's still ongoing," John Hozey, city manager, told the Valdez City Council Monday night during its regular council meeting.
DOT personnel and hired contractors have been working 24/7 – literally – to clear the last section of the highway near milepost 16 that was covered by over 1,000 feet of avalanche debris that also dammed a large section of the Lowe River.
Figures are not yet available to assess the costs to state coffers.
The dollar figure the City of Valdez will have to ultimately pay had not yet been tabulated Hozey told the council, but he said costs to city coffers were likely to be less expensive than first estimates.
City resources – and personnel - went into overdrive during the first days of the crisis, which began with the first avalanche at Snowslide Gulch sometime shortly after 6 a.m. Friday, January 24. By Monday of this week, much of the crisis had abated and city government functions slowly returned to normal operating mode.
Hozey told council that while the city was still technically under an incident command mode, few resources were being diverted from regular day-to-day city functions.
Hozey and Mayor Pro tempore Mike Wells met with Gov. Sean Parnell briefly Saturday after he flew into Valdez on a fixed wing aircraft and took a tour of the avalanche zone in a waiting Blackhawk Helicopter before flying back out of Valdez.
"It was just a meet and greet," Hozey told council about the short meeting with Parnell, "An exchange of pleasantries."
The days leading up to the end of the crisis were not pleasant at all. While emergency responders in Valdez struggled to access what danger might be posed to 10 mile residents as a result of the damming of the Lowe River, a Copper Valley Electric Association transmission line was knocked out of service causing an outage that affected all CVEA members.
The majority of the service area was restored within 15 minutes according to CVEA, but the Heiden View Subdivision remained out of power.
The multiple avalanches causing road closures on the Richardson Highway and cut off access to the subdivision and according to CVEA, its crews were unable to investigate the cause of the outage or determine what repairs were needed.
Photo courtesy Ryan Cook/CVEA
Talk about being knee deep in it. Todd Staley, CVEA line crew foreman in Valdez was up to his knees in snow, water, and ice last week, working to restore power to Heiden View residents in the aftermath of the avalanche.
According to a press release from the association, "CVEA wasted no time and Saturday afternoon crews traveled by helicopter to Thompson Pass to assess the situation and restore power to Heiden View. After landing, Todd Stahley, a line foreman, and Steve Bushong, system engineer, hiked a couple hundred feet through waist deep snow and water to access the CVEA substation and perform the necessary switching. As of 1:28 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, power was restored to 19 mile.
"During the aerial assessment it was discovered that a phase conductor had broken loose from a transmission line tower in Thompson Pass and was determined to be the cause of the outage," CVEA said last Thursday. "With continued avalanche activity and road closures in the area, access was restricted. CVEA Glennallen Line Crews eventually made multiple trips to the area on Monday and Tuesday, escorted by the Alaska Department of Transportation, to assess the situation and make repairs. As of 7:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, CVEA's transmission line was back in service and operating under normal conditions."
Other service providers, from the Alaska Ferry System to the Ravn Aviation (formerly known as ERA Aviation), worked double-time to ensure Valdez received vital supplies such as groceries, mail, medicines and other needed services.