Alaska Towns Deal With Cruel Grip Of Winter

Published January 10, 2012 2:00AM (EST)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — One town is buried in snow. Another is iced in. This year's winter is being meaner than usual for at least two Alaska communities.

Now, residents are looking for outside help.

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

By one count, more than 10 feet of snow has fallen in the town of 2,000 in the last few weeks.

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

Almost 700 miles to the northwest, the old gold rush town of Nome is iced-in, awaiting the arrival of a Russian tanker that's barely inching along in its mission to deliver fuel.

A 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 15 feet 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 Friday, prompting the National Guard to send more than 70 troops Sunday. Heavy equipment, including a snow-melting machine, also arrived Sunday to supplement local resources.

"It's just been relentless, just nonstop," city spokesman Allen Marquette said Monday. "This year is just accumulating."

Some roofs have collapsed or partially caved-in under the wet snow that's at least six feet 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 Saturday evening. The restaurant wasn't 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 Monday to find an interior wall had buckled.

Bank spokeswoman 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 Monday as the two vessels moved slowly toward Nome. The 370-foot tanker is loaded with 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products.

"The dynamics of things make it a pretty intense transit," Cmdr. Greg Tlapa, the executive officer of the Healy, told The Associated Press by satellite phone Monday afternoon as the icebreaker was about 111 miles south-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."

The Healy is trying to keep the Renda 0.3 mile behind the Coast Guard cutter as it breaks through 3 feet of ice. But the ice conditions are changing constantly, and when they reach heavier ice, the path is closing between the two ships.

In those cases, the Healy has to double back to relax the pressure from the surrounding ice. The scale of the mission is unprecedented for the Coast Guard in the Arctic, Tlapa said.

The ships were originally scheduled to arrive Monday, but it's uncertain when they would arrive.

"It's slow and steady, but we're making good progress," Tlapa said.


Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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