Road to Alaska port city cut off by avalanches set to reopen

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 04, 2014 5:17 PM

By Steve Quinn

JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - An Alaska highway hit by a series of avalanches that blocked the only road to the port city of Valdez will reopen on Wednesday, nearly two weeks after it was cut off by snow and ice, state transportation officials said.

Alaska's Richardson Highway should open by mid-afternoon, restoring Valdez's access to the rest of Alaska by the north-south artery, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Utilities spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said.

Until the road reopens, Alaska's interior and far north regions cannot receive fuel, goods and heavy equipment for the oil fields that arrive by barge to Valdez's deep water ports.

Valdez sits at the end of the 800-mile, trans-Alaska pipeline. The avalanches did not affect pipeline operations because the line runs underground in that section.

Successive avalanches on January 24 shut down about 42 miles of the highway as it approaches Valdez, a community of about 4,000 people.

The avalanches came a day after Valdez received more than 5 inches of rain over a 24-hour period, creating what state officials called "mass instability" that triggered snow slides.

The biggest obstacle came when avalanches clogged a river, creating flood warnings for a half-mile-long, 10-foot-deep lake. Crews also worked around-the-clock to clear stacks as high as 100 feet and up to 1,500 feet long.

The Richardson highway is the state's oldest, dating to 1898 and the gold rush days. It is one of the state's two major north-south arteries with a deep-water port terminus in Valdez.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Amanda Kwan)