It May Be in Alaska, But the Town Still Wasn't Expecting an Avalanche

by | February 4, 2014

By Michelle Theriault Boots

People who live here know about snow. They also know about rain and they know about ice. But the town's real expertise is snow.

This is a place where, in the winter of 1989-1990, street names had to be spray-painted on snow berms because the signs were buried in mountains of snow, and driving around town was like navigating a white-walled maze. It is a place where businesses post signs advising motorists to park feet away from the building, in case a refrigerator-sized slab should slide off the roof. In Valdez, during the recent winter of 2011-2012, it snowed for 31 days straight and roofs specially engineered to hold extra-heavy loads collapsed.

But even old-timers are awed by the sheer magnitude of the highway-swallowing avalanche that abruptly plunged Valdez off the road system last month.

The avalanche, at a spot on the Richardson Highway known as a perfect incubator for avalanche conditions, happened Jan.25. It quickly became obvious that it was not one of the typical Thompson Pass slides that closes the highway for a couple hours from time to time each winter.

For starters, the avalanche at Mile 16 was bigger than anything state highway officials had ever seen: A monster debris field 100 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet long. Its force and size dammed the Lowe River, creating a half-mile-long lake. People in town dubbed it "Damalanche." Uncharted territory. State highway officials acknowledged last Monday they had no idea when the road was going to be open again.

Sharon Blake, an office manager at the Totem Inn, had to see it for herself. On Wednesday, she and two friends pooled their money to charter a helicopter tour up to the site of the avalanche.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," she said.

With Valdez cut off from the road system, outsiders far away imagined a growing panic in town. Locals shrugged and hunkered down.

"We're doing just fine," city spokeswoman Sheri Pierce told calling reporters, as the Weather Channel and CNN picked up the story of the isolated Alaska town. Valdez still had air and ferry access. Most of the communities in Alaska aren't connected by road. Lacking a highway put Valdez temporarily in the situation of Cordova, the town's Eastern Prince William Sound neighbor.

In Cordova, people proudly wear sweatshirts that shout NO ROAD, said Blake. Maybe, Blake suggested, Valdez should make some sweatshirts, too.

There was a moment of mild alarm a few days into the closure, when shelves at the only grocery store in town starting going bare. People started loading shopping carts with bottled water, said Kathy Molinar, a local bartender with a deadpan sense of humor who has lived in Valdez for 28 years.

Molinar found it hilarious. She took a satirical series of photos of herself appearing to rush potatoes out of Safeway in a cardboard box. In another one she posed wearing a tinfoil hat.

If people were freaked out by the road closure, she thought, they were probably new to town, Molinar said.

Now in their second week cut off by road, Valdezans regard the closure as both an inconvenience and a point of pride: The power of an avalanche to close one of the state's handful of major highways is part of what makes Valdez a singular place to live, even in a state full of wild extremes.

___ Valdez residents are clear about one thing: The road closure is not a disaster. "This is just a small inconvenience," said Steve Newcomer, a Texan who retired from decades in the Alaska oil industry in Valdez. "This town has had true emergencies."

The very ground Valdez rests on today is a direct result of the greatest catastrophe in its history.

On March 27, 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake roiled Alaska.

In Valdez, a tsunami swept over the town. The docks, where people had gathered to watch a ship's cargo being unloaded, disintegrated. People were pulled into the sea.

Thirty-two people were killed. The death toll in Valdez was higher than any other community in the state, and many of the dead were children.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Valdez reinvented itself. The town site was moved to higher ground, four miles to the west.

It still stands there: A collection of utilitarian buildings backed by a towering wall of mountains.

Reminders of Valdez's fate in the Good Friday Earthquake remain. The airport is a tsunami evacuation zone.

Twenty-five years later, Valdez became notorious as the site of what was then the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef, about 40 miles south of the Valdez terminal, spilling 10.8 million gallons of unrefined Alaska crude oil into Prince William Sound.

The spill fouled marine life and altered the lives and livelihoods of people in Prince William Sound in ways that are still being felt and measured.

But it also brought a post-spill boom, as workers descended on the town to clean up. An industry sprouted up around making sure nothing like it ever happened again.

___ A quarter century after Exxon Valdez and 50 years after the earthquake, Valdez is a city of pipeline workers, fishermen, schoolteachers, backcountry skiers and line cooks.

This winter has been one of the strangest in memory. First there was plenty of snow, which is usual for a place that can see 300 inches or more in a winter. Then, in mid-January, it began to rain, which is not.

Inches of rain fell. Then feet.

People started to hear a sound foreign to the dead of winter: Waterfalls. Bridal Veil Falls, which ice climbers are usually scaling in January, ran fast.

Kate Sicilia and her boyfriend had traveled up from the Lower 48 to spend the winter backcountry skiing and living on the Hogan Isle, a handsome purse seiner parked in the harbor. They did odd jobs to stay busy as they watched the rain prime the mountainsides for avalanches and kill their chances of skiing.

And then, on Friday, Jan. 25, Valdez woke up to see that the mountains that shoot up from behind town appeared to have fallen down, Sicilia said. They were spotted like a pinto horse: Rock and mud visible where the slopes had been frosted white.

The avalanches sounded like a freight train, or a jet taking off.

If the mountains in town were collapsing under the weight of a jiggly, rain-soaked snowpack, what of Snowslide Gulch, 16 miles up the Richardson?

Last Friday morning around 6 a.m., according to state Department of Transportation crews, a massive avalanche caused a chute of snow there to cover the highway.

The last person known to have driven the road before the avalanche was a highway worker making his morning commute to the Thompson Pass work station, said Jason Sakalaskas, an engineer with DOT. He missed the avalanche by minutes, Sakalaskas said.

The next day, explosives triggered an even larger slab at Snowslide Gulch to fall.

Douglas Fulton, a ponytailed veteran Valdez helicopter pilot, saw it happen: "It came down boiling. Spilling out in fingers, in colors I've never seen before. It's just so beautiful."

The force of the snow momentarily reversed the course of the Lowe River.

He's since flown over it 20 times, shuttling DOT officials and once picking up his stepson, who was stranded at a cabin in the Mile 19 subdivision.

When he sees the colossal field of snow, spiky like a stegosaurus and tinted a prism of mud and rock hues, Fulton says his instinct is to take a picture. But he lets his clients do that and keeps his hands on the helicopter's controls.

(c)2014 Anchorage Daily News