Nearly a week after a massive snowstorm squatted over Eastern Alaska and unloaded, power remains out in parts of the Copper River basin, and the Richardson Highway to Valdez is just being reopened after being blocked for two days by a massive avalanche.
Many of residents in the sparsely populated region have spent days shivering in the cold dark.
“This is like a 500-year storm,” Copper Valley Chamber of Commerce president Bruce Cain said Friday. “The roads were closed. The schools are closed. Most businesses were closed. The power was out. You couldn’t get fuel, couldn’t use electronic communication. The heat was out unless you had a wood stove.
“Anywhere else this would be international headlines. Around the Copper River Valley, it’s just another regular day I guess.”
When the storm started really amping up on Tuesday, Frank Robbins said he thought for moment maybe the “North Koreans were invading” because of the strange way the storm lit up the countryside. As he drove north in the early morning dark from his home in Copper Center, a community of fewer than 350 people, to work in the not much bigger regional hub of Glennallen, population 483, he said, the forest along the road kept exploding “in blinding flashes of light.”
The wet, heavy snow was coming down so fast and piling up so deep the weight of it was breaking the tops off spruce trees. Tops that fell onto high-voltage powerlines caused them to arc and flash and cut power to thousands.
Robbins said he noticed the falling-tree phenomenon almost as soon as he got up and looked out his window in the morning. Five or six trees tree tops had broken off in his yard, he said, leaving him a little nervous about letting the dogs out for fear more timber would come down.
The 17-mile drive to work was an adventure, he said.
By the time, he got home from work that night, his home was without power or heat, and it remained that way through Friday. Robbins’ heater has an electric igniter, which requires electricity to fire, and his 8-year-old generator isn’t working.
“I’ve been enjoying a lot of candlelit dinners,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist said. “It’s been interesting.”
Fortunately temperatures in the area have been near or above freezing, and Robbins said he is used to camping out.
Copper Valley Electric Association crews were working around the clock trying to repair the damage. They had summoned help from Anchorage, Cain said. The electric association could provide no information. A CVEA receptionist said everyone was busy, and she’d get someone to call back but they never did.
Cain, Robbins and others said they were making do. People in the area are used to living a semi-wilderness lifestyle.
“I don’t need much,” Robbins said, but he confessed he found himself missing his connection to the tubes. A reluctant late joiner to the web, he admitted to having become something of an addict.
“I had nothing to do with social media for years,” he said, but then he started connecting with friends back in Texas and doing a lot of reading online and the next thing he knew he was hooked.
“I go home and just log on,” he said. Not being able to do that left a void.
The Copper Valley is a near wilderness area. Bigger than the state of West Virginia, cut by only a handful of roads, it is home to fewer than 10,000 people, the population of a small town in much of the country.
As with people in most of rural Alaska these days, however, residents of the valley are very connected online.
Cain said he fielded phone call from friends worrying their smartphones were dying and looking for ideas on where to charge them. He suggested plugging them into the car, but some were nervous about running their cars or trucks because of a fuel shortage caused by the lack of power at all three of Glennallen’s gas stations.
None of them have backup generators, Cain said. Fortunately, Copper Valley Telecom does have power, and for those who had power for their electronic devices, the phones and internet were working.
Everything else, not so much, Cain said. He spent most of the week at home after driving to work on Tuesday to discover his employer – Ahtna Inc., the regional Native corporation for the region – had decided to shut down because of the storm.
Ahtna considered the roads too dangerous to drive. Cain climbed back into the 1978, four-wheel-drive, Ford pickup he calls Harold and drove home.
“I got Harold stuck in the driveway,” he said. Ailing with a bad back, he called his neighbor with a plow to come help get him out. The plow got stuck. So he and the neighbor called another snowplow. It got stuck.
“So I had a truck and two snowplows stuck in my driveway,” he said. They were all eventually dug out and Cain settled in at home.
Like everyone else in the region, he kept track of the worsening storm by listening to the area radio station, and then it went off the air when its generators failed.
“After that,” he said, “it was down to Facebook and the rumor mill. Luckily, I have a generator.”
Cain could power up to go online. Friends called to ask if them could come over and poach his internet. He fired up his woodstove to keep the house warm.
“The roads were all closed until today,” he said. “It’s just the way Alaska is. If this had happened anywhere else, it would have been a big story. But the rest of the world missed it. Valdez has been isolated all week.”
The terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipleine System, Valdez is a port city on Prince William Sound at the south end of the Richardson Highway. A massive avalanche came down north of Thompson Pass in the Chugach Mountain to close the road.
Road crews were held out of the area for a time because of fears of more avalanches.
“They got that open this morning,” Cain said Friday afternoon. “The snow’s kind of backed off. I think the whole event was over 100 inches. They got 48 inches in one 12 hour period at Thompson Pass.”
Normal was slowly starting its return on Friday.
Trucks had begun rolling through Glennallen southbound for Valdez, and some rain had settled the snow enough that moose could get off the roads.
“Don’t forget the moose,” Cain e-mailed. “All the moose came out on the road because of the snow and got hit. This added to the chaos with road-kill crews out while plows were trying to clear the roads. I think the plows hit at least one stranded car.”
In Alaska, road-kill crews salvage moose carcasses and distribute the meat to the needy. At least the snow meant some people were going to eat well in the Copper Valley.
But there were lingering problems.
Kenny Lake, a widely dispersed community of about 400 some 40 miles south of Glennallen, was reported to be still without power late Friday. Jan Miller, a resident of Gulkana, a community of about 100 about 10 miles north of Glennallen, said she’d just gotten her power back late Friday afternoon, but she wasn’t confident it would stay on.
It had been off and for days, she said.