December 8, 2022

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Interior Alaska storm wreaks havoc as highways temporarily close and thousands remain without power

Dec. 28—A Christmas weekend storm has caused chaos throughout Interior Alaska — the roof of Delta Junction’s only grocery store collapsed under the heavy weight of snow and ice, some basements in Fairbanks started to flood, two highways temporarily closed and thousands of homes remained without power Monday.

The Golden Valley Electric Association was working Monday to restore power, but spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said that some homes may be without electricity until Thursday.

By Monday evening, nearly 7,000 utility members were still impacted by almost 230 outages. More than 14,000 homes had been without power as of Sunday night.

“We’re hoping to have all power restored for everyone by Thursday,” Bailey said. “But that kind of depends on exactly what comes with this next round of storms and what road conditions look like. If we get another round of additional outages, that timeframe might be pushed back.”

The Fairbanks area could see 6 to 11 additional inches of snow by Wednesday, said Jonathan Chriest, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

Ten crews were working Monday to restore power and six additional crews were traveling to the Fairbanks area from Anchorage to help, Bailey said. Poor road conditions have made it difficult for crews to access outage areas, and it can be labor intensive and time consuming to complete the actual repairs, she said. Downed trees, heavy with ice, have fallen on many power lines and caused outages.

Roads were coated with ice and snow Monday and driving is extremely dangerous, so there was not an emergency shelter set up for those who were facing extended power outages, Bailey said.

“We’re encouraging people to reach out to their neighbors, family, friends, and get to a warm area if they need it,” she said.

‘Please stay home’

The Elliott Highway closed Monday morning after Mile 72, near the Dalton Highway exit, because of drifting snow and icy roads. The Department of Transportation said on Facebook that portions of the Steese Highway were also closed Monday. The Parks Highway closed Sunday night and reopened early Monday.

Road conditions surrounding Fairbanks were considered hazardous by the state transportation department.

Chriest described the roads as “a sheet of ice with water on top.”

Teal Soden, a spokeswoman for the City of Fairbanks, said it may take a while for snowplows to clear some neighborhoods in town.

“Yesterday we had plow crews out for the city … but the freezing rain was actually causing serious issues with the equipment, so we had to stop plowing for awhile,” she said. “We did have sanders out on the road, though, and today we have graders and sanders out, but the snow is so heavy that it’s very, very difficult to remove.”

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities had crews working overnight to plow snow, scrape and groove ice, and place traction materials on state roadways across the Interior. Extra staff was called in Monday to help improve road conditions, the department wrote on Facebook.

DOT said there’s not a quick fix for roads covered in ice: The ice is “like cement on top of the pavement” and graders and plows can’t remove it, while road surfaces are too cold to effectively melt the ice with salt or brine.

Officials urged people not to drive Monday unless it was an emergency.

“There’s always a concern with safety because a lot of people won’t necessarily heed our warnings to stay off the roads. … We just keep reiterating that if you don’t have to go somewhere, if it’s not an emergency, if it’s not urgent, then please stay home,” Soden said.

Grocery store roof collapses

In Delta Junction, the weight of the snow and ice caused the roofs on a gas station and the town’s only grocery store to collapse, said City Administrator Mary Leith.

In a post on Facebook, the owners of IGA Food Cache said it was unclear when the store would reopen.

“We are at the mercy of the weather, engineers, and insurance adjusters,” they wrote.

Without the grocery store, the nearest place to buy food is in Fairbanks, about 90 miles northwest.

“If you have two stores in town, it’s no biggie — you go to the other one. But we don’t. We have one IGA here. … I know there’s real concern about people that can’t drive themselves up to Fairbanks regularly to go get their groceries,” Leith said.

The roof caved in sometime Sunday afternoon, Leith said. On Monday, the windows were covered with paper, she said.

The store owners wrote that they were “devastated that we are leaving you without a grocery store” and were looking for a way to bring some source of groceries into the town.

More snow to come

A storm like this is extremely unusual for this time of year, Chriest said.

Aside from the heavy ice accumulation, there was 9.3 inches of snow reported by Monday in Fairbanks and nearly 2 inches of liquid precipitation reported on Sunday alone, he said.

Sunday marked the wettest December day on record and the third wettest day of any month, he said.

The only similar storm occurred in January of 1937, when there was a significant snowfall followed by rain, Chriest said.

The heavy rainfall caused some localized flooding, with reports of water seeping into some Fairbanks basements, Chriest said.

“Basically what happened was the freezing rain formed a layer of ice on top of the snow, and so then as it kept raining, the water just kept running off the ice and ponding,” he said.

Temperatures were expected to drop again Monday night and remain below freezing into the weekend, Chriest said.

More snow was expected to hit the region Tuesday morning, dropping about 4 inches in the Fairbanks area and up to 6 inches in areas south of Fairbanks, according to a special weather statement. The snow will taper off on Tuesday afternoon, but a second wave will bring another 6 or more inches of snow to areas northeast of Fairbanks, the statement said.

The snow was expected to taper off Wednesday afternoon.

The new storm could make it more challenging for crews to clear roadways, and Bailey said it could cause additional power outages, which could delay Golden Valley’s restoration from the weekend storm.

“We don’t feel like this is over,” Bailey said. “We feel like this is ongoing.”