ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The only road available for hauling supplies to Alaska's North Slope oil fields has reopened following unprecedented flooding that intermittently closed portions of it for more than two months.
Traffic began moving Friday on the Dalton Highway, state transportation officials said.
"We're ecstatic," said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey.
Flooding from the nearby Sagavanirktok River caused the road closures and essentially halted oil industry deliveries by land. Food, fuel and other supplies had to be flown up instead. The road's final closure lasted 18 days.
Dubbed the Haul Road, the mostly gravel Dalton Highway is a 414-mile, often desolate stretch that begins near Fairbanks and leads to Deadhorse, the oil-industry town serving Prudhoe Bay. It can be treacherous in winter and has been featured on the cable show "Ice Road Truckers."
Deadhorse was never fully shut off since its airport remained open. BP, among the major North Slope operators, was not affected in its oil production, according to spokeswoman Dawn Patience.
Gov. Bill Walker twice issued disaster declarations in response to the flooding. The declarations activate assistance for those affected by damage.
It's not uncommon to deal with some overflow from the river but not at this level, according to officials. Bailey said various factors are believed to have contributed to this year's flooding, including last summer's heavy rain season that saturated the ground and ice sheets built up at the bottom of the braided and shallow river, pushing water to the top.
Friday's reopening was good news for truckers who have been waiting to get back on the road and back to work, said Aves Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association. The industry organization represents about 200 trucking and related companies.
Even for contractors who have spent decades in Alaska's oil industry, the flooding was unlike anything anyone has seen, according to Thompson, who has been in the industry himself for some 30 years. In April, Thompson stood at the edge of one closure about 10 miles south of Deadhorse.
"You could stand there and look out across the tundra," he said, "and as far as you could see was ice. It was amazing."
Also celebrating the opening were workers at Cold Bay Camp, the logistical hub for the Dalton that includes the nation's farthest north truck stop. Even though trucker traffic diminished greatly during the closures, leisure travelers taking Arctic tour excursions ended up spending an extra night at the camp instead of proceeding toward Deadhorse and shuttles that take them the last 6 miles to the Arctic Ocean.
Cafe worker Franny Hemberg was happy to see a trickle of truckers that stopped Friday on their way north. There weren't as many as expected, but she's hoping to see more, perhaps on their return from the Slope.
"We're waiting for all our trucker friends to come back," she said. "We've been missing them a lot."
Transportation officials said the reopening doesn't mean the road is problem-free. One section, for example remains in rough condition, with narrow and uneven areas. Also, highway improvements will be starting this summer and continuing through next year.
In work set to take place this summer, a portion of the road will be raised up to 7 feet at an estimated cost of at least $27 million. Next year, plans call for another portion of the road to be raised.
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