As winds subside, Mat-Su residents take stock of devastation

A man looks at the snowy ground.
Christopher “CJ” Young inspects damage on various planes caused by heavy winds in Palmer over the weekend. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Christopher “CJ” Young was picking up debris from the glare-ice and waist-high snow drifts at the Palmer Airport Tuesday morning. Nearby, small planes were flipped upside down. A truck was toppled over.

“I’ve been in tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, haboobs overseas. This was bananas,” said Young, an employee at the flight school Fly Around Alaska.

Young was among the many Matanuska-Susitna Borough residents on Tuesday assessing the widespread damage from this weekend’s powerful winds. In the wreckage, as the winds subsided, some found trees fallen on homes or windows shattered from flying debris or vehicles overturned.

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Young found planes smashed on an ice-covered runway. He said staff from the flight school had tied down the planes with strong ropes and chains, but it wasn’t enough for the 90 mph gusts.

“It was secured with double ropes and it actually broke the tie-down rings on the wings themselves, they just shattered,” he said. “And then once the airplane lifted off the ground and broke the tie-down chain, it actually broke the chain itself that was holding the tail of the aircraft.”

A small plane is flipped upside down.
High winds over the weekend flipped small planes upside-down at the Palmer Airport. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
A truck is tipped on its side.
High winds pushed over a work truck at the Palmer Airport. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Young said one of the planes was worth about $120,000 and he wasn’t sure if insurance would cover the damage.

He said he spent nearly all of the last three days at the company hangar, tightening and retightening straps on planes. Even with proper equipment it was harrowing. 

“The wind just blew me, microspikes and all across the thing until I was crouched down into a snow berm and then I crawled on my face through blowing gravel to get in the hangar,” he said. 

Two men walk on ice near a flipped-over small plane.
CJ Young (left), a worker at Fly Around Alaska, a flight school in Palmer, surveys the damage to one of the company’s Piper Cherokee planes that flipped over after it’s wing rings snapped and a chain holding the tail broke. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

As of Wednesday morning, about 2,000 households still did not have power, according to the Matanuska Electric Association. The Mat-Su school district announced it was closing schools again on Wednesday “due to prolonged power outages and frigid temperatures.”

Officials said at a Tuesday evening briefing that it has received about 500 emergency calls since the windstorm started on Saturday. There have been no reports of serious injury. Most emergency calls have been about fires sparked by downed power lines.

Ken Barkley, emergency services director for the borough, said damage to some buildings in the area is “beyond repair.”

“Some have blown the back whole walls out of commercial buildings. We’ve had bay doors literally blown in on the structures,” he said.

While there weren’t major injuries, there were close calls, said Barkley said. He said one family of six nearly died after running a generator in a garage that was attached to their house.

“Do not run your generator in your house,” he said. “Do not run your generator in the garage. It will get you. It’s colorless, odorless, tasteless. You won’t know it.”

Many urgent care clinics have been closed over the last few days, as well as some COVID-19 testing sites, putting an extra burden on the hospital.

In downtown Palmer, the destruction continued.

The pergola over the steam engine at the historic train depot was smashed to pieces on the ground. The Carrs grocery store was missing a portion of its roof. Pipes had broken and ice blanketed the entrance.

A pavilion is flattened outside.
Winds destroyed a pavilion at the Palmer Depot. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
Ice forms on the outside of a big store.
The Carrs grocery store in Palmer on Monday. Pipes broke and a portion of the roof is gone but the grocery store was operating as normal. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

In a nearby lot, Amber Rose and a crew of helpers were digging out her car that was cemented into the snow with wind drifts up to the windows. She said she intended to drive it home on Sunday. But when she arrived, she realized it wasn’t safe. 

“I came over and the wind was so bad that it just pushed you down,” she said. “Snow drifts were all the way up to the windows. They’ve come down a lot but over here on this side it’s really, really bad.”

A couple volunteers finished their work freeing up the entryway of a nearby store and came to help Rose with metal shovels — plastic ones weren’t strong enough for the wind-hammered snow. 

People shoveling snow around a car.
Palmer residents help Amber Rose dig out her car on Tuesday. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Officials say 5 people spent the night at the Palmer Middle School shelter. It’s one of two shelters the Mat-Su Borough and Red Cross have set up for those who don’t have heat or whose homes were damaged.

Bruce Whelan, a Red Cross volunteer from Anchorage, said dozens of people had stopped by the Palmer shelter to shower, to charge their phones or to eat. Even getting meals is a challenge though. 

“Unfortunately, the Salvation Army lost power in their kitchen, but they’re going to borrow a kitchen to try to bring us our food,” he said. “If they don’t, then we’re going to run to the store or Subway or McDonald’s or whatever we can do.” 

Borough officials said the National Guard was on standby to help move people to shelter if needed.

Paneling is ripped off a white trailer.
A trailer destroyed by heavy winds over the weekend and abandoned off the Glenn Highway. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
A highway sign is ripped off and laying in trees.
High winds in Palmer blew over an exit sign off the Glenn Highway. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

For some residents, surviving the wind has been a challenge, but they said it’s helped put things in perspective. 

“You’re relying on your local government, your local community and volunteers to help you out,” said Ben Prouty, of Palmer, who was at the shelter on Tuesday charging his cell phone. “So it’s definitely, I would say, been very eye-opening.”

Prouty said he and his housemate Peter Park haven’t had power for days, and they quickly burned through their wood supply. 

“I went through like old totes of like, paperwork and stuff, old jobs, like old things that just are no longer relevant, and I’m just burning them all,” said Park. 

Remnants of a trailer in the grass of the highway.
The remnants of a trailer destroyed by heavy winds over the weekend and abandoned off the Glenn Highway. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

On Tuesday afternoon, they were on their way to get groceries and pick up more wood for the stove, but stores were crowded. Food is in high demand. Social media posts on Tuesday told of empty shelves in the refrigerated section of a local grocery store that was running on a generator. There was no meat, frozen foods, dairy or refrigerated produce.

“I tried to go to McDonald’s and there was a line like, maybe a couple 1,000 feet around,” said Park. “So it’s pretty rough right now.”

Park and Prouty both work in homelessness services in Anchorage, and said they suddenly feel homeless themselves. 

“I have a job, I have a stable life and all it takes is one good storm,” said Prouty.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.