Alaskan blizzard spawns avalanches, closes highway, tunnel

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 10, 2012 8:53 PM
Alaskan blizzard spawns avalanches, closes highway, tunnel

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - Alaska state officials closed the sole highway leading south out of Anchorage on Tuesday because of high winds, avalanche dangers and blowing snow, temporarily isolating two small communities.

Closures of the Seward Highway from Alaska's largest city and the Whittier Tunnel, a passage used alternatively by cars and Alaska Railroad trains, blocked access to the ski resort community of Girdwood and the Prince William Sound port town of Whittier.

The move was due to two avalanches along the highway and avalanche-control work, said Rick Feller, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

The department will reopen the highway if weather and avalanche conditions allow, he said. No injuries were reported from the avalanches.

In Girdwood, a community of about 2,200, the highway problems forced cancellation of school bus service and Alyeska Resort's ski lifts and trails were closed due to high winds, said Bill Chadwick, chief of the local fire department.

There has been no request for a shelter to house stranded travelers, Chadwick said. Anyone stuck in Girdwood can take refuge at the high-end resort hotel, he said.

"They've got warm rooms and food and they take a whole lot better care of you than we can sleeping on the floor of the elementary school," Chadwick said.

In Whittier, home to about 220 year-round residents, the transportation shutdown is also being taken in stride, said Dave Schofield, the city's public safety director.

Local roads there are clear, so "life is normal," other than the inability to get out of town, he said, adding that: "People are pretty much used to that."

Tunnel-dependent Whittier, where most residents live in a single high-rise apartment building, is relatively isolated even in good weather.

The blizzard striking much of the Gulf of Alaska coastline has affected several communities, state transportation officials said.

Schools and offices in Homer were closed on Tuesday due to high winds and snow drifts up to seven feet, the department said. The airport at the island fishing port of Kodiak was closed due to icy conditions, the department said.

Meanwhile, snow continued to fall in the Prince William Sound ports of Cordova and Valdez, according to the National Weather Service.

In Cordova, where Alaska National Guardsmen are helping shovel what has been the biggest snowfall in decades, another 6 to 14 inches was expected Tuesday, accompanied by rain and high winds, the National Weather Service said.

Valdez, which is on track to set a snowfall record this winter, could see more than a foot more snow through early Wednesday, the service said.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan)