State, Valdez Officials Assess Richardson Highway Avalanches

UPDATED 4:22 p.m. Alaska Department of Transportation continues to monitor the Richardson Highway after avalanches over the weekend cutoff road access to the city of Valdez.

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Officials gave an update on the situation during a teleconference earlier Monday afternoon.

Valdez may not have road access, but progress has been made to provide transportation to its residents.

Following an aerial assessment of multiple areas, the Alaska Department of Transportation determined that some mountains along the Richardson Highway are still fairly active.  DOT maintenance engineer Jason Sakalaskas said once those areas are deemed safe, crews will begin work on the northern end of the avalanche area near Milepost 39.

“On the north side we do not see a lot of large avalanches, which is good,” Sakalaskas said. “So the cleanup efforts in that location should be fairly minimal, or fairly expeditious.”

As for the Keystone Canyon area, there is still a significant amount of water behind the north side of the dam created by Saturday’s slide. Sakalaskas said there is no safe way to approach relieving the water without removing it from the downstream side.

He did see one positive from the area. The Lowe River in the canyon has begun flowing again.

“We do this as a positive measure because obviously it will drain the impounded flow, but also will be a controlled release of the water, which is on the north side of the canyon,” Sakalaskas said.

Temperatures are expected to be in the 20s and 30s for the rest of the week, but DOT officials are hoping for cooler temperatures to help stabilize avalanche conditions especially at higher elevations.  They don’t expect find any road damage from the slides.

Valdez is still accessible by ferry and plane. The Alaska Marine Highway System modified its schedule to three direct trips between Whittier and Valdez.  Normally, the ferry Aurora sails clockwise from Cordova to Whittier to Valdez and back to Cordova.  DOT Deputy Commissioner Reuben Yost explains…

“On Tuesday there will be a trip in each direction starting in Valdez to Whittier, then back from Whittier to Valdez. Thursday, we’ll have the normal Whittier to Valdez sailing; Friday we’ll have a Valdez to Whittier Sailing; Saturday, another Whittier to Valdez and finishing up Sunday with a Valdez to Whittier.”

Era Alaska also added a fourth flight between Valdez and Anchorage.

A voluntary evacuation advisory from the city is still in effect for residents of the Nordic and Alpine Woods subdivisions of the 10 mile area.

The Valdez City Council plans to hear an update on the situation during a special meeting tonight.

Original Story:

Valdez remains cutoff by road from the rest of the state due to avalanches and flooding over the weekend.

Progress has been made in clearing some of the debris on the Richardson Highway, but crews still have a long way to go.

Crews from the Alaska Department of Transportation spent Sunday stabilizing slopes along the Richardson Highway. They were also able to clean up some debris around the 39 Mile area.

DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow says no progress has been made near the Keystone Canyon due to a lake forming behind an avalanche damn.

“The water is coming out of the old railroad tunnel and so water is flowing, which is good news,” Woodrow said. “Though it would be more helpful if the water were decreasing at a faster rate than it is.”

The Nordic and Alpine Woods subdivisions in the 10 Mile area have been under a voluntary evacuation advisory as a result. Valdez Public Information Officer Sherri Pierce says the city is closely monitoring the area.

“We’ve asked them to be prepared if we have any reason to believe that they’re in any sort of imminent danger,” Pierce said.

City officials are working with the Alaska Marine Highway system to increase ferry service to Valdez.

A DOT maintenance engineer arrived Sunday night to assess to the situation as is expected to make a report the findings Monday afternoon.

Valdez City Manager John Hozey, Valdez Police Chief Bill Comer, and Valdez Fire Chief George Keeney plan to do their own assessment via helicopter.

Tony Gorman is a reporter at KCHU in Valdez.

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