Should snow — in Anchorage, Alaska — be this disruptive?

A man in a black hoodie helps a another man tow his taxie
Jovell Rennie helped tow Feeg Feng’s taxi out of the snow on Thursday. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Last week, Jovell Rennie of downtown Anchorage tweeted an open offer to help out drivers stuck in the snow. Since then, he’s unstuck more than 20 people. He said it’s his favorite winter activity. 

“I was like, completely serious. Cause, it feels good, you know?” he said. “It’s like, you’re being a good neighbor. Being stuck sucks. You never get stuck at a convenient time. It sucks to even have to be on the roads.” 

Rennie isn’t a professional driver or anything — he’s just a friendly guy that’s into off-roading. He’s got a truck kitted out with tow ropes and other handy gear. His only ask of those he helps is that they pay it forward. He’s got two other off-roading buddies who actively look for people to help out, too. 

A lot of drivers needed help over the last two weeks. Police reported hundreds of cars trapped on snowy roads, plus some car crashes. With three back-to-back snowstorms, bus service has been unreliable, pedestrians can’t count on sidewalks and local schools have shut down for an unprecedented six days, citing heavy snow and dangerous road conditions. 

The level of disruption in such a northern city, plus how it manages snow removal and residents’ expectations, is the subject of criticism and questions from the dinner table to the water cooler to the chambers of the Anchorage Assembly. 

“The recent snowstorms have made clear that despite being a winter city, the municipality is not equipped to deal with a significant snow event,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said during a meeting earlier this week

“Cars are tools,” said Jovell Rennie as he helped a driver out of the snow on Tudor Road on Thursday. “It’s important to understand its limitations.” Ancorage police reported 143 cars stuck in the snow in just one early-morning period last week. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

LaFrance said her constituents see snow removal as an essential service that must be done quickly and thoroughly. 

Anchorage Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance. (Courtesy Anchorage Assembly)

“I urge Mayor Bronson for the sake of public safety, our schools and our economy: Fix this problem so we are not in this situation again where streets remain impassable for days and schools and businesses are closed down,” she said.

She invited the mayor to get a proposal in front of the Assembly for its next meeting on Tuesday so more can be done. 

Hans Rodvik, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said Thursday the administration does not expect to have new snow removal requests at that meeting. But he said there will at some point likely be a request for money to hire contractors to haul away snow earlier than usual. 

Otherwise, he said even with the new agreements to temporarily boost the city’s snow plow force, the muni’s snow removal budget for the rest of the year appears to be on track, barring more major winter storms. 

“So we’re pretty good, we think, through the end of the year,” Rodvik said. 

Snow plow crews at Goose Lake on Wednesday. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Which isn’t to say the street maintenance team doesn’t have challenges. Rodvik said roughly a quarter of the jobs for workers who can operate snow removal equipment are open because of a wider labor shortage. And the market for snow removal equipment is also constrained. 

Rodvik said it’s a problem that more money may not be able to solve. 

“You know, if the Assembly wants to send more resources our way, that’s fine,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you know, we’ve talked to the experts, there’s just a lack of qualified drivers out there right now and a lack of available equipment. Everyone from your guy with a pickup truck and plow on the front to the big-time national contractors with side-dumps, everything like that, that is normally construction summer equipment, is tied up.”

Like the graders that began clearing neighborhood streets again on Thursday afternoon. Rodvik said the city’s street maintenance shop has enough drivers to run them continuously in alternating 12-hour shifts. But those drivers can’t maintain that pace forever. If they were better staffed, Rodvik said the drivers would get more relief, and that pace would be more sustainable.  

“So we’re not trying to play politics,” said Rodvik, “we’re just focused on delivering what the citizens expect.”

A man in a black coat walks on a snow roadway.
A trio of snowstorms have swamped sidewalks, forcing some people to walk in the street. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

The situation on the state side is similar.  

“I would say the biggest factor right now is the volume of snow,” said Justin Shelby, administrative operations manager for the state transportation department’s Central Region. “There’s always issues with equipment and particularly recently with staffing. But that’s not what’s causing the challenge for us right now. What’s causing the challenge for us right now is the amount of snow.”

The National Weather Service said this is already Anchorage’s fourth snowiest December on record. About three and a half feet of snow fell at its West Anchorage office over the past two weeks, and many parts of town got more.

There is some good news: The forecast from the weather service calls for cold temperatures and clear skies through the weekend and into next week.

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Jeremy Hsieh has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He lived in Juneau from 2008 to 2022 and now lives in Anchorage.

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