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The Avalanche And The Alaskan City Finding Its Way Out


The city of Valdez, Alaska is no stranger to avalanches but this year has been a whopper. A series of massive avalanches buried the highway into the city, cutting off traffic for two weeks. Snowpack that crashed down the mountains filled a canyon and left the road covered with snow 40 feet deep for a quarter mile stretch. Well, yesterday, after the avalanche, debris was finally cleared, the Richardson Highway was opened to traffic again.

John Hozey is Valdez city manager and he joins me now. Mr. Hozey, welcome to the program. Thanks for talking with us.

JOHN HOZEY: Good to be here.

BLOCK: I wonder if you can describe what it looked like. You flew over this avalanche debris pile. Describe what it looked like before it was cleaned up.

HOZEY: Well, I guess the only word to use is impressive. I mean, and that's a lot coming from someone who lives in this part of the world who sees this all the time.


BLOCK: Takes a lot to get you to say impressive, right?

HOZEY: That's right. The place where this occurred is a place called Snowslide Gulch. It has that name for a reason. There are slides there every year but not like this. What happened was we had really unusual weather. When it got really cold down there in the Lower 48, it got really warm up here and it actually started to rain. Temperatures at the tops of the mountains were approaching high 40s, even 50 degrees, and rain.

That just destabilized the snowpack that's there every year. And people who've lived here for 30, 40 years say they've never seen a slide like that.

BLOCK: Wow. I've read, Mr. Hozey, that they've been calling this Damalanche because the snow didn't just cover the road, it also created a ice dam on the river and then that water backed up into a huge ice lake.

HOZEY: That was actually our greatest concern, yes. It's a steep canyon that connects us to the rest of Alaska - that's where the road runs through. So that water started backing up, up to 15, 20 feet of standing water on the road. But down in the riverbed, were it's, you know, 40, 50 feet deep. Once the canyon opens up into the main valley, about two miles from there, we have our first subdivision. So we were concerned that if there was a massive release of water all at once, what effects that might have on that subdivision.

BLOCK: You know, Mr. Hozey, when I look at the pictures of how much snow was on that road, it's impossible for me to figure out how you would clear a snow pile that's that big. How did they do that?

HOZEY: Well, this isn't their first slide. The State of Alaska Department of Transportation has a lot of experience with this. Especially the crew here that's stationed in lower Richardson Highway, they deal with this every year. They kind of start at the top and work their way down. They create a big V. So you work it starting on the walls of the canyon where it's the widest, and you start clearing it out as you get down towards the bottom of the V, so that it still remains stable and nothing is going to come down on you.

If you start at the bottom and just start eating away at the road, you're going to have very steep walls of this snow next to you that could come down on you.

BLOCK: What kind of heavy equipment are they using to deal with all that snow, when they're clearing an avalanche like that?

HOZEY: Just really big loaders, really big excavators and rock trucks. But before DOT went in there to clear it out, they wanted to make sure it was stable. So they go in and do active avalanche control. That's setting off charges. They actually have a howitzer that they'll fire into the mountain. And they'll bring down the snow in a controlled way.

BLOCK: Mr. Hozey, you get used to this? Do folks in Valdez pretty much take these kinds of things in stride, even if they hadn't seen an avalanche this big in a really, really long time?

HOZEY: Yeah, I think we do. You know, I don't mean any disparity to any of our friends in the Lower 48 but...



HOZEY: ...this was going on at just about the same time there was a lot of weather issues going on in a lot of places in the Lower 48. And, of course, this captures some national attention. And I got lot of calls from reporters and they were surprised to not hear panic in my voice. You know, they thought: Well, you got 4,000 people trapped at the end of the road. And I said, no, not really.


HOZEY: We have an airport. We have ferry service. We have a fully operational port. Yeah, it's an inconvenience but these are the types of things Alaskans take in stride. We live in a most beautiful place on the planet and sometimes this is the cost of getting that privilege.

BLOCK: John Hozey is the city manager of Valdez, Alaska. Mr. Hozey, thanks so much for talking with us.

HOZEY: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.