While more than half-a-mile of the Richardson Highway remains underneath water and snow, life in Valdez goes on for those affected by a Friday night avalanche.
More than 40 feet of snow, ice and debris covers the Richardson Highway hindering traffic from coming into and out of Valdez, but with most retailers fully stocked, one might be hard pressed to see any discernible change of life for residents.
Kim Woodhouse and her husband are 10-year residents of Valdez. The Friday avalanche isn’t the first time the Woodhouses have seen Mother Nature’s wrath directly impact their lives. Back in October of 2006, a flood ripped through Valdez, not far from where Woodhouse lives now, and even closer to where Friday’s avalanche occurred along the Richardson Highway.
The flooding of 2006 reminded Woodhouse how well connected her community is in dealing with emergencies, and how far it’s come since.
“I think the city and state are doing a great job of keeping us informed – we do have our bags packed,” Woodhouse said.
Woodhouse has been keeping an ear to Department of Transportation alerts too. In fact, it’s tough not to, considering her husband works for DOT.
“There are a lot of DOT workers who live out here, so we wanted to get their opinion, and we’ve also been talking to cops, just to see what other people are doing,” she said.
Communication, Woodhouse said, has been crucial in keeping her informed and helping alleviate any sense of being cut off from the rest of the world.
“We are already so far away; Anchorage is five to six hours away,” Woodhouse said. “In 2006, we felt further away.”
The 2006 flooding may have served as a catalyst for area residents and perhaps even a wakeup call for public agencies to improve communication and determine how well prepared the city was in the event of another, potentially more dangerous natural disaster.
Just down the street from Woodhouse, large construction vehicles can be heard rumbling along as they move heavy mounds of snow and dirt. The vehicles belong to Woodhouse’s neighbor Rick Wade, and he usually just parks them somewhere on his property. According to residents, if you’re looking for local historical perspective, you needn’t look further than the Wade property. Four generations of the Wade family live there now.
Wade has been fortifying his property and assessing what potential impact the repercussions of Friday’s avalanche may still have in store. Wade's wife Becky was living in the Valdez area in 1956, when Alaska was still considered a territory. Wade’s father homesteaded the property he still lives on. Ironically, when an event like Friday’s avalanche occurs, city workers call him, not the other way around.
And with good reason. Wade was living in Valdez when the Good Friday Earthquake rocked the city so bad it was forced to relocate. Becky's parents Milford and Bonnie Taylor housed dozens of other residents in their small cabin located at 10 mile after the quake. Wade assisted in the cleanup of the 1989 Valdez oil spill, helping delegate rescue and cleanup efforts with the local fire department. He was also present in 2006 to assist in the flooding cleanup.
“I’ve always kind of been involved with helping people here,” Wade said.
While Friday’s avalanche may not have been the worst natural disaster Wade has lived through, he’s not taking it any less seriously. When the city declared a voluntary evacuation notice, he was all for it.
“A lot of the city officials called and wanted to know what I thought about it, and I encouraged it. We should let people know,” Wade said. “We have a lot of older people or that have special needs and all of those people were moved out.”
“And that’s one nice thing about Valdez: We have a lot of people here willing to help out.”
As far as feeling cut off from the rest of the world, Wade recognizes how many might perceive it that way, but it’s happened before, and he knows there are other ways of getting out of town.
“Between the weather when the planes can’t fly or smaller avalanches blocking Thompson Pass, it’s not uncommon for us to get times when we can’t get out of town,” Wade said. “But this is much, much more serious.”
As of Tuesday the Richardson Highway from milepost 12 to 42 remained closed until further notice, according to DOT officials.
The water formed behind the avalanche dam in the Keystone Canyon continues to recede, however the area is still unstable and too dangerous for crews to begin clearing any of the debris. DOT crews have yet to set a timeline for when work can begin, either, due to the “variability of the receding water,” DOT officials wrote in a Tuesday press release.
While crews continue to determine the best course of action though, residents and local businesses can at least rely on one thing: each other.