By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Valdez hunkers down after massive avalanches

Supply chains rerouted and critical infrastructure stable during crisis


Photo courtesy City of Valdez

Water was flowing nicely through the old abandoned railroad tunnel in Keystone Canyon Monday after avalanches covered the Richardson Highway and dammed a large portion of the Lowe River.

Two years after Snowmagedden, Valdez is now coping with a Damalanche.

The Valdez populace is coping well with its latest weird weather-related situation dubbed Damalanche by emergency responders coping with the 1,000-1,500 feet of avalanche debris covering not only both lanes of the Richardson Highway, but is also damming the Lowe River.

The area and its subdivisions have been under a flash flood watch from the National Weather Service since Friday.

The avalanche fell at Snowslide Gulch at milepost 16 Friday when a natural avalanche slid onto the highway and the Lowe River sometime after 6 a.m. that morning. Water from the river began to form a lake, leading authorities to fear a flash flood could threaten residents in subdivisions in the ten mile area downstream. A second man-made avalanche fell during blasting operations Saturday, creating a monster of a snow dam.

"It's like a bowl of jelly right now" on Keystone Canyon mountaintops, Robert Dunning, Valdez manager for DOT told the Valdez City Council during a special meeting Monday night.

Officials say it is unlikely the road will be cleared or reopened for at least another week – or possibly much longer.

So Valdez has hunkered down. While highway traffic is out of the question for the foreseeable future – responders say it will be at least another week and possibly much longer before the Richardson Highway reopens – ferry services for vehicles, freight and passengers has been upped by the Alaska Marine Highway System and ERA Aviation, which recently changed its name to RavN Aviation, has increased flight service to Valdez

Avalanches along the Richardson Highway are nothing new, and DOT crews and other responders routinely deal with snow slides during winter months. High snow pack, high temperatures and record January rainfall creating unusual conditions in the area, and the resulting dam from the avalanche is considered unprecedented.

The Lowe River, which features class 4 white water rapids in the area during summer months, is normally frozen or nearly dry this time of year and poses little danger of damming when avalanches occur. Not so this year. High winter temperatures combined with heavy rains on top of tens of feet of snow and ice have created ideal snow slide conditions on the mountains surrounding Valdez. Mountains normally dazzling in white coats of snow now appear drab with evidence of snow and mud slides everywhere.

Officials reported Monday night that the lake formed by the avalanche dam was draining through the old abandoned tunnel and the lake depth was going down by as much as 5 inches an hour.

The City of Valdez is issuing regular press releases at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily through the crisis, with addition information released as it occurs.

Holly Wolgamott, (formerly Powers) assistant city clerk and public information officer for the City of Valdez, recapped recent events Tuesday morning.

Mayor Pro Tempore Wells called a special City Council meeting last night to have City Administration brief the City Council and the public on the current situation surrounding the avalanches in Keystone Canyon. Jason Sakalaskas, maintenance engineer with Alaska Department of Transportation (ADOT), reported on his findings after his review of the area yesterday. He determined that there is an increase flow within the Lowe River on the south side of the avalanche which means water is moving beneath the snow and back into the normal river channel. The water level in the lake is now receding at about 4-5 inches per hour. They expect that rate to increase a bit as the river thaws out more. Mr. Sakalaskas reported that there is still about 10 – 12 feet of water on the actual road way which must be completely gone before work to clear the road may begin. It will likely take several more days before the water level is low enough to begin clean-up operations.

Mr. Sakalaskas indicated that the snow on the roadway is approximately 20 – 40 feet deep. The total area affected by these avalanches is approximately 1000 – 1500 feet in length. Their efforts to begin cleaning up of the roadway will likely be to start on the north side of the avalanche before the lake has completely subsided. Once the lake has subsided, they will clean up the avalanche from the south side. Mr. Sakalaskas was not able to predict a definite timeline for opening the road; however he did indicated that once they are able to start moving snow and debris, they could have the area cleared in approximately 3-4 days. He also noted, however, that there are many unknowns in this process. Another area of concern is the condition of the road once they are able to reach it. They expect that the road will be largely intact but there may be various repairs that will have to be made before the road can be reopened.

In conjunction with Copper Valley Telephone and ADOT, the City of Valdez established a cellular based remote camera at the western end of Keystone Canyon yesterday to provide real time monitoring of the Lowe River. Images are being monitored through the Valdez Police Department (VPD) Dispatch. Should this water level in the river become a concern, VPD dispatch will take appropriate action.

The City Manager spoke with the state's hydrologist again yesterday who reiterated that catastrophic failure of the snow dam is still considered very unlikely. The main concern at this point is the possibility of some localized flooding just west of the Canyon. However the flash flood warning remains in effect until further notice.

Safeway has stocked most items received via barge on Monday (January 27th). They are expecting another barge on Saturday afternoon. Matt Ficek, Store Manager, wished to inform local businesses that Safeway is able to help coordinate supplies on the barge coming in this Saturday if there are specific items needed.

The City of Valdez encourages the public to visit for details on the increased ferry schedule. The City will continue to work with the Alaska Marine Highway System throughout this event to make sure that transportation needs for Valdez are addressed while the road is closed. Era Alaska has reported that they are willing to also add flights to their regular schedule on an as needed basis.

Alaska State Troopers are working with ADOT and the residents at 19 mile to make sure they have plenty of supplies and food while the road is closed. Alyeska Pipeline sent a helicopter with supplies to the area yesterday and will continue to monitor the needs there.

Steve Revis photo

The turnout next to the road closure gates near milepost 11 acted as a staging area for helicopters Saturday that were ferrying supplies to avalanche clearing crews in Keystone Canyon.


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