Snowed-in Alaska town braces for another blast

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - An Alaska community blitzed by nearly 15 feet of snow was hit by another storm Tuesday and a new problem — a shortage of shovels.

A spokesman for the city of Cordova said officials had tried Anchorage, Fairbanks and other cities and finally turned to a manufacturer for a special order.

"It's ironic, isn't it? The state of Alaska — you'd think they'd be ahead of the game. It's those logistical things you just don't plan on, or you don't think is going to be an issue," said Allen Marquette by phone from the city on the east side of Prince William Sound.

The snow-weary city of 2,200 was promised new shovels to be manufactured Thursday and delivered two days later — but it will be too late for the "couple more feet" of snow that touched down Tuesday, accompanied by winds of up to 40 mph and gusts to 55 mph.

Alaska town gets help digging out of snowy prison
Video: Extreme snow hits Alaska
Video: Blizzard buries Alaska town

The latest storm hit much of south-central Alaska. Avalanches along the Seward Highway closed the only route south out of Alaska's largest city, cutting off Anchorage from neighborhoods to the south in Girdwood.

Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Feller said the department followed up with an even larger induced avalanche using explosives fired from a military-style howitzer.

"That showed there was a lot of pent-up energy, and it's been released," he said. The highway will remain closed until noon Wednesday.

The storm knocked out power to parts of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. Drifts accumulated to 7 feet, Feller said, and the city put out an advisory to boat owners that 16 inches of snow could accumulate and boats should be cleared.

KMXT-radio in Kodiak said flights to the island city had been canceled and three boats sank in local harbors from the weight of snow. In Valdez, the terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline, forecasters issued a blizzard warning through Wednesday afternoon, with winds to 45 mph and accumulations of up to 17 inches of snow on the Richardson Highway at Thompson Pass, the road access out of the community.

Heavy digging equipment is used to move tons of snow clogging the roads of Cordova
Heavy digging equipment is used to move tons of snow clogging the roads of Cordova, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012.
CBS/Erin Lyall

Cordova, a fishing community famed for wild Copper River salmon, may have been hardest hit. Since Nov. 1, the city has received 176 inches of snow and 44.24 inches of rain, at times increasing the weight of the snow as it piled up to 6 feet high on roofs.

Accumulations on roofs and walls damaged four commercial buildings and two homes, Marquette said.

The threat of such collapses prompted the evacuation of an apartment complex, where weight on the roof jammed doorways and windows, making it a fire hazard, Marquette said. The Red Cross has turned the city recreation center into an emergency shelter.

Dealing with the white stuff has turned into a near military operation. City, state and federal authorities set up a command center to organize its response to the snow emergency. One task: deciding who gets their roof or entryway shoveled first. The community set up a call-in number to report access problems or roof hazards.

"We're sending out teams to assess," Marquette said. "Everybody thinks it's serious, but you have to go out and assess to prioritize ones that need it the most."

The Alaska National Guard has sent dozens of soldiers, mostly to wield shovels. The U.S. Coast Guard contributed at least 20 personnel to clean docks and help maintain heavy equipment.

A "tremendous outreach" of volunteers helped their neighbors clear roofs or clear paths to buildings, Marquette said. But as they perform the backbreaking work of moving snow by hand, they're running through shovels.

"Part of it is, the light fluffy snow is no more," Marquette said. "It's the heavier, wetter stuff. A lot of these shovels are plastic. These are big strong people, and so you're bound to have some equipment that gets damaged and broken. So we need to keep replenishing and repairing and getting those back out on the line so they can get the work done."

The city was looking for ice chisels, snow shovels and snow scoops that push snow.

Coast Guardsman cleared docks at one Cordova harbor and worked on another Tuesday. National Guard soldiers had concentrated on city buildings such as the museum, library and high school and "put a good dent into the situation," Marquette said.

Danger from the storm Tuesday kept volunteers off roofs but soldiers worked throughout the day, Marquette said. Shoveling can create a small avalanche on the building, he said.

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