Freezing rain and poor road conditions Friday morning have led to major traffic issues across Southcentral Alaska, with schools closing and state offices dismissing employees early amid a Kenai Peninsula power outage.
Chugach Electric spokesperson Sarah Wiggers said as of 2:15 p.m. that power has been restored to all Chugach customers and Girdwood after Friday's Kenai Peninsula outage.
Wiggers called the outage a "two-pronged" event, caused by two Homer Electric Association units' failure in Nikiski. While that outage and the ones it caused in turn weren't major, it occurred while crews were still working to repair a downed 115-kilovolt transmission line which temporarily closed the Seward Highway near Girdwood early Tuesday.
As of 1:30 p.m. Wiggers says the transmission line repair is expected to be complete by 5 p.m. Friday, while Wiggers says Chugach and HEA are working on the Nikiski issue.
"At this point they've gotten a few units back online, but they're still testing and haven't brought people back online yet," Wiggers said.
Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters said shortly after 1:30 p.m. that a crash which temporarily closed the Parks Highway near Mile 49 had been cleared, but that intermittent road closures persist during Friday's wave of crashes and vehicles in distress.
"People should be patient and expect that there will be delays as we deal with this all," Peters said.
At about 1:30 p.m., APD spokesperson Anita Shell confirmed that the Glenn Highway remains open Friday afternoon, despite rumors to the contrary. She says the only major highway closure in effect from APD is a southbound closure on the Seward Highway near Dimond Boulevard, following a rollover reported at about 12:15 p.m.
"We have signage up (on the Glenn) that says 'Icy roads, freezing conditions ahead,' but we don't have anything closed," Shell said.
Seward City Clerk Johanna Kinney confirmed shortly after 1 p.m. that the city power utility's emergency generators had been started about half an hour after Chugach Electric's Kenai Peninsula power outage. She says nonessential city employees, excluding groups including police, firefighters and sanding crews, were sent home shortly after local schools were closed.
"Kind of keeping with that, the city manager decided to send nonessential employees home today," Kinney said.
In a 1 p.m. statement from the Alaska VA, spokesperson Samuel G. Hudson says five clinics for veterans -- the Northway Mall, Muldoon, Domiciliary, Kenai and Mat-Su locations -- have been closed for the remainder of the day.
"All shuttle services for these clinics are cancelled for the remainder for the day," Hudson wrote. "The Alaska VA Director has authorized early release."
As of about 1 p.m., the Mat-Su Borough School District announced that it had canceled all after-school activities Friday and Saturday. An elementary-school girls' jamboree was set to be rescheduled.
At about 12:30 p.m., Anchorage police confirmed that the Seward Highway was closed southbound after a 12:15 p.m. crash with unknown injuries near Dimond Boulevard. APD spokesperson Anita Shell says drivers should use the 76th Avenue exit to avoid the closure.
The State of Alaska announced Friday afternoon that it had initiated a staggered early dismissal of state offices for the day in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, at supervisors' discretion, at noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Department of Administration spokesperson Andy Mills said DOT and Alaska State Troopers had told officials that conditions were "getting to a point" where the decision was necessary.
"The Anchorage/Mat-Su was a clear make-the-call-now to get the people out in staggered intervals," Mills said.
Chugach Electric spokesperson Sarah Wiggers says the company was informed shortly after 11:30 a.m. Friday that all customers from Girdwood south had lost power, after two Homer Electric Association generating units at Nikiski went offline and in turn tripped stations at Bradley Lake and Cooper Lake.
"The Kenai Peninsula is totally black," Wiggers said.
Wiggers says no crews have yet been sent, as dispatchers were working to isolate and resolve the problem. Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officials said the outage was affecting all schools except those "across the water," with facilities on backup generators.
AST spokesperson Megan Peters says drivers during the outage should remember that lights without power should be treated as four-way stop-sign intersections. She adds that as of noon, the only Mat-Su Valley thoroughfare still blocked was Vine Road.
"This road is physical impassable due to ice and vehicles all over the road that cannot move and that are blocking the road," Peters wrote. "DOT is aware and are (sic) sending trucks to sand."
Peters says previous blockages on the Parks Highway and Knik-Goose Bay Road have been cleared, with DOT trucks sanding Knik-Goose Bay by noon.
Shortly before noon, People Mover buses suspended service in Anchorage, with spokesperson Paula Kangis saying the system would check conditions hourly to determine when buses would resume service.
"AnchorRIDES has canceled service except for life sustaining trips and returning riders transported this morning, back to their home locations," Kangis wrote. "All other trips are canceled, including Eagle River Connect and Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center."
At 11:30 a.m., the University of Alaska Anchorage announced that it was closing its Anchorage, Eagle River and JBER campuses at 12:45 p.m. Friday.
"Classes beginning after 12:45 p.m. are cancelled," UAA staff wrote in a text message to faculty and students.
A Wasilla school bus carrying children overturned on the way to school at about 9:20 a.m., and some schools in Seward, Moose Pass and Girdwood closed for the day.
Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District spokesperson Catherine Esary said initial reports indicated that none of the 14 students on the bus were seriously injured in the accident, but officials were later informed that the driver and two or three of the students received minor injuries. The driver was taken to an area hospital, while district employees took the students to be evaluated.
Esary said school officials made rounds of nearby roads in the morning but buses were already en route when the bus flipped near Knik-Goose Bay Road.
As of 9 a.m., Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters said freezing rain in the Valley had left many vehicles sliding sideways at speeds as low as 5 miles per hour and traffic on Knik-Goose Bay Road at a standstill. She says dispatchers estimated a total of 300 reported vehicles in distress for the region, although that number hasn't been confirmed.
"Valley roads are absolute crap," Peters said.
Anchorage police said freezing rain was starting to fall on local roads as of 9 a.m., asking drivers to slow down. While no major uptick in vehicles in distress has been reported, police have already responded to three non-injury collisions at 15th Avenue and Sitka Street, 88th Avenue and Abbott Road, and outbound on the Glenn Highway between the north and south Eagle River exits.
Shell says Minnesota Drive has been closed in both directions at 15th Avenue as of 10:45 a.m., with a vehicle in distress in the area and vehicles reportedly sliding down the Westchester Lagoon hill on Minnesota south of 15th. A separate closure on Minnesota was also reported westbound near 26th Avenue, where a tour bus had gotten stuck on a hill.
APD's Twitter feed reported that the crash at 15th and Sitka had temporarily closed 15th between Lake Otis Parkway and Orca Street, with freezing rain reported on both the Glenn and Seward highways. The closure ended after about an hour, at roughly 10 a.m.
"Use extreme caution when driving today!" officers wrote.
APD spokesperson Anita Shell says that police have only received reports of about 10 vehicles in distress Friday morning. She tentatively attributed the rain's relatively mild effects to people staying home or already being at work when it hit, adding that the delay in winter's arrival this year has given residents more time to put studded tires on vehicles.
"Whatever the reason, Anchorage drivers on the flatland are doing well," Shell said. "We don't even have any injury accidents."
Notices posted on the state’s road conditions website list a “slippery road surface” on the Seward Highway in the vicinity of Seward, Girdwood and Moose Pass, with driving conditions along the highway varying from “very difficult” to “hazardous.”
Channel 2 meteorologist David George confirmed the deteriorating driving conditions on the Seward in a weather update Friday morning.
"Freezing rain has made driving difficult south of Potter March and Beluga Point and hazardous south of Moose Pass and Cooper Landing," George wrote in an email. "Temperatures are warming rapidly over the Kenai Peninsula so conditions should improve gradually in those areas."
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s website announced closures at four schools: Moose Pass School, Seward Elementary School, Seward High School and Seward Middle School.
“Please use your best judgment about safety and weather conditions in your neighborhood,” KPBSD officials wrote. “If school remains open, and you choose to keep your child at home, please simply call the school to tell them.”
Meanwhile, the Anchorage School District says the Girdwood K-8 School has been closed for the day, as well as all bus service between Girdwood and South High School. ASD spokesperson Heather Roach says students who regularly ride the bus to South High are excused for the day, if they can’t get rides to and from the high school.
Although schools haven't been closed, ASD spokesperson Heidi Embley says after-school activities are being closed for the day.
"Due to weather conditions all after school activities are canceled today, including sports, family nights, 21st Century Community Learning Centers and other-school related activities," Embley wrote in a Monday email.
A State Music program at Bartlett High School is set to continue Friday with all of its musicians present, as well as ASD students' participation in a Palmer High School wrestling tournament in the Valley. After-school campfire programs and rented facilities will remain available for the day, although parents are asked to pick up children whenever possible and renters may choose whether to continue their events.
All other KPBSD schools and bus routes, as well as all schools in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough School District, were operating on normal schedules Friday. A message on MSBSD spokesperson Catherine Esary's voicemail indicates that Valley schools are open, but buses may be delayed.
Earlier Friday, George said Anchorage had yet to see the conditions reported south of town, but was likely to do so.
"About two-thirds of the available moisture for precipitation from this system is already east of Anchorage, but a batch is wrapping back toward the Bowl throughout the morning hours so conditions will likely worsen as the chance of light mix, freezing drizzle and light freezing rain begins to increase," George wrote.
While the icing has led to more difficult driving, George says the weather has gotten markedly warmer, with temperatures increasing by 20 to 25 degrees over Thursday's clear and cold conditions.
Channel 2's Austin Baird, David George, Lacie Grosvold, Grace Jang, Rebecca Palsha, Scott Smith and Joshua Staab contributed information to this story.
This is a developing story. Please check KTUU.com and the Channel 2 newscasts for updates.