Wed, Jan 11, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Alaska towns deal with cruel grip of winter

RELENTLESS:With more than 3m of snow piled up in places, buildings have collapsed and members of the US National Guard are helping to free residents


A person shovels snow from a rooftop in Cordova, Alaska, on Monday following weeks of storms that have left parts of the town buried in more than 3m of snow.

Photo: Reuters

One town is buried in snow. Another is iced-in. This year’s winter is being meaner than usual for at least two Alaskan communities.

Now, residents are looking for outside help.

Dozens of US National Guard members are helping the fishing town of Cordova, Alaska, dig out from mountains of snow that collapsed roofs, triggered avalanches and trapped some people in homes.

By one count, more than 3m of snow has fallen in the town of 2,000 people in the last few weeks.

With high winds, more snow and possibly rain in the forecast, responders and local volunteers on Monday were trying to shovel out buildings considered most at risk.

Almost 1,130km to the northwest, the old gold rush town of Nome, Alaska, is iced in, awaiting the arrival of a Russian tanker that is barely inching along in its mission to deliver fuel.

A US Coast Guard vessel is cutting a path in the thick ice of the Bering Sea, but ship crews are encountering challenges that are sometimes forcing the vessels to come to a complete stop.

All of it means that the town could potentially face a fuel shortage.

This winter, almost 4.5m of snow has fallen on Cordova, with a series of bursts that ended with a rain drenching over the weekend that added substantial weight to the snow and slicked the landscape.

The town issued a disaster declaration on Friday, prompting the National Guard to send more than 70 troops on Sunday.

Heavy equipment, including a snow-melting machine, also arrived on Sunday to supplement local resources.

“It’s just been relentless, just nonstop,” city spokesperson Allen Marquette said on Monday. “This year is just accumulating.”

Some roofs have collapsed or partially caved in under the wet snow that is at least 1.8m high on some buildings. So far, no injuries have been reported.

At the Coho Cafe restaurant and bar, the roof of a back shed caved in when snow from the restaurant’s pitched roof slid off and hit it on Saturday evening. The restaurant was not open and no one was hurt.

Kara White, a waitress and bartender, heard the surreal roar of the collapse.

“There’s no description for it,” she said during a break from shoveling.

At the First National Bank branch, workers arrived on Monday to find an interior wall had buckled.

Bank spokesperson Cheri Gillian said the steel-frame building is considered structurally sound, but the bank will remain closed — possibly operating out of a nearby church — until someone can inspect it.

Meanwhile, shifting ice in the Bering Sea was making it more difficult for the Russian tanker Renda to deliver fuel to Nome.

Nome needs diesel and unleaded gasoline after a fall fuel delivery by barge was delayed by a storm. By the time the weather had improved, barge delivery to the iced-in town of about 3,500 people was impossible.

The coast guard’s only functioning icebreaker was leading the way on Monday as the two vessels moved slowly toward Nome.

The 113m tanker is loaded with 4.9 million liters of petroleum products.

“The dynamics of things make it a pretty intense transit,” Commander Greg Tlapa, the executive officer of the Healy, said by satellite phone on Monday afternoon as the icebreaker was about 179km southwest of Nome.

He described conditions outside the Healy’s bridge much like the surface of the moon: nearly 100 percent snow coverage, occasional ridging and “lots of rubble all around.”

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