Bad driving conditions following a record snowstorm in Anchorage have closed schools for a third straight day, and brought life for some residents to a standstill. Road crews said Friday that they’re working around-the-clock to catch up on clearing streets before another storm is forecast to hit on Sunday.
“I’ve got every person, every resource that we have out on the roads plowing, and we’ll continue to do so,” said Anchorage street maintenance manager Paul VanLandingham.
The storm started Tuesday, intensified overnight and dropped more than 2 feet of snow in parts of town by Wednesday afternoon. National Weather Service officials say this week’s snowstorm was the largest in December in more than 20 years. Snowy roads trapped more than 100 vehicles on Wednesday, and conditions were still so bad by Friday, that the Anchorage School District closed schools again.
It’s rare for Anchorage students to have two snow days in a row, let alone three. The district intended to have students return to school Friday, said spokesman MJ Thim. Then operations crews saw road conditions.
“They remained unsafe for buses and students to walk to school,” he said. “That was a surprise to us. We had all intentions of opening.”
The storm hit as the city struggles with staffing in its snow maintenance department, according to VanLandingham. He said the staffing issues have persisted since the end of last winter, with several retirements and few job applicants. Also, he said, there were maintenance issues with some of the equipment at the start of the storm.
“We were down about nine graders,” he said. “Since then, the fleet maintenance department has gotten the graders up. We’re sitting at 28 this morning, so I’ve got 28 of our 30 graders out rolling today.”
VanLandingham said crews began clearing snow from main Anchorage roads on Tuesday night, before moving to residential streets on Thursday.
“We are 20 to 25% complete with residential plow-out,” he said Friday afternoon. “It is a slow go out there, lots of snow.”
How prepared the city was to tackle a snowstorm has been a point of contention for at least two weeks. Citing concerns from community members, the Anchorage Assembly approved adding $1.5 million to the budget for snow plowing services last month. Officials with the municipality’s maintenance and operations department told the Assembly that adding the funds to the budget would maintain current levels of service.
“That increase was essentially net-even,” Assembly vice chair Chris Constant said on Friday. “Which means the administration had effectively planned on reducing snow plowing, which we’re not down with as a legislative body.”
VanLandingham said the funding is appreciated, and a contract issue largely drove the increase in snow plowing costs. He said the city was set to contract with a trucking company in the fall, but the bidder pulled out at the last minute. The new contracts the city put out to bid ended up costing twice as much.
Mayor Dave Bronson’s office did not respond to a request Friday for an interview with the mayor about snow removal.
Meanwhile, snow plow crews are looking ahead to Sunday, when weather officials forecast another dump of snow hitting Anchorage — with current estimates ranging from 10 to 16 inches.
RELATED: Anchorage under winter storm watch starting Sunday afternoon
VanLandingham said his team will continue to tackle the snow as it comes, now that most of the maintenance issues have been taken care of. He said he understands frustration from residents, but this week’s storm was much larger than usual.
“I’ve been doing this for 26 years for the MOA, and I can remember two other snowfalls that even came close to this,” he said. “All I can say is the guys and gals that are running the graders are just as frustrated as they are. We want to get out there. We want to do a good job, a quality job. And they’re feeling the pressure too, so we will continue to work around-the-clock.”
As the city continues to clear streets, the Anchorage School District announced that they would be working with the city to offer operational staff support. VanLandingham said it will take a little time to get school district staff trained on city snow removal practices.
“We’ve got to make sure that they’re willing and understanding to do the work,” VanLandingham said. “Because it’s different than working in a confined parking lot or something like that. Not saying they can’t do it, but it’s not just something where I call someone, give them a map and tell them to go to work. There’s a lot of things we need to make sure they understand.”
Meanwhile, Anchorage students are on their third day home from school. On Friday, sisters Mary and Delilah Kelila were looking for a place to go sledding. The high schoolers said they were having a good time with their days off. It’s a mixed bag for their older sister, Jaydean, who works and usually drives them to Bartlett High School in the morning. She had the day off Friday and was happy to sleep in, too.
“This is very unusual,” Jaydean said. “Last year wasn’t like this. Like, they had one snow day and then they went back to school the next day, ‘cause the roads would’ve been plowed. But then, it snowed so much it took forever for them to plow the roads. And so it made it harder for people to drop off their kids or the school buses. Which I’m kind of glad, because the roads are crazy. It’s supposed to snow more and I’m just not looking forward to it.”
Thim said the school district has three days set aside in its calendar for inclement weather days. But Friday’s snow day pushed the total count so far to four, according to Carl Jacobs, school board vice president.
“The board will get briefed on how this will impact the school year,” Jacobs said. “I know we set aside and plan for a couple inclement weather days per year. We may have exceeded that, so if that’s the case, the district will have to look at operations choices to make that time up, essentially.”
Thim said it’s unclear what decisions the district will make regarding the missed days, stating that “all options were on the table.”
Thim said the district is keeping an eye on the weather and road conditions and aims to alert parents by 5:30 a.m. Monday if schools will be closed another day.
Alaska Public Media’s Jeremy Hsieh contributed to this report.
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