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Road crews grapple with slides, flooding

By Heather Hintze 5:56 AM January 28, 2014

The highway could be closed through at least Sunday.

VALDEZ – Department of Transportation crews are still figuring out how to clean up the avalanches blocking Thompson Pass.

They happened Friday morning and blocked the Richardson Highway, Valdez’s only connection to Alaska’s road system.

State transportation crews have to wait for some of the water backing up behind the snow to go down before they can begin work with heavy equipment.

The area is still too unstable, so on Monday it was all about assessing it from the air.

Pilots from Vertical Solutions Helicopters made trip after trip to the pass with DOT crews and Valdez city officials. DOT said the good news is the water behind the avalanche appears to be receding, possibly by up to four feet. They said there’s still about 12 to 15 feet of water on some parts of the highway, though

“That’s what happens when you plug a large river like this. Unfortunately we’ve had unseasonably warm weather which has increased flows in that river,” said DOT Engineer Jason Sakalaskas. “Right now we’re estimating that river is flowing about one-third its capacity that it does during the summer when it has normal melt off, glacier and rains. So there’s quite a bit of water we’re dealing with there.”

Valdez City Manager John Hozey took a tour along with the police chief and fire chief to get a firsthand look at the damage.

“Wow, it’s very impressive. You don’t see that kind of snow every day. That area is very prone to avalanche, its called Snow Slide Gulch for a reason. It slides there every year, but not like this,” Hozey said.

Once cleanup crews can actually get to the site there will be at least five to 10 people working around the clock.

“It is a large volume [of snow] but we’ve got a lot of equipment and manpower to do it. So we’re thinking it will only take three, four days to remove the snow, so that’s not too bad, once we actually get to removing the snow and the water’s receded,” said Sakalaskas.

“Our biggest concern is making sure residents are taken care of on that east end for any flooding that might occur. Then just making sure our daily needs are met. Life goes on in Valdez,” Hozey said. “This is just life in the Great Land and we’ll survive.”

Hozey met with the Valdez City Council Monday night to update members on the avalanche. DOT engineers were also there to give an assessment of the situation. Hozey said everyone’s just waiting to see when the water will recede so they can decide what to do next.

DOT said the highway will be closed through at least Sunday.

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