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Valdez, Once Blanketed in Oil, is Buried Under Many Feet of Snow

January 22, 1990

VALDEZ, Alaska (AP) _ Man and the heavens have teamed up against Valdez, which in March suffered the world’s worst oil spill and is buried under record snows - 29 feet so far this winter.

On March 24, the tanker Exxon Valdez piled up on a charted reef about 30 miles south of the harbor, bleeding about 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into the gin-clear waters of the Prince William Sound.

Exxon’s much-criticized cleanup ended in September. Then winter came.

By the new year, drifts reached stocking cap level, plows turned city streets into long, white trenches, and snow crept halfway up first-floor windows. You couldn’t say the town’s 3,000 residents were surprised, however, since Valdez’ average annual snowfall is 303 inches, or 25 feet.

Only then it really started snowing.

By late Friday, after many days of near-constant snowfall, the white stuff in the middle of town would have buried a bus. And still it came down.

The weight of the snow was threatening to cave in roofs, and the city marshaled all able-bodied snow shovelers as quickly as they could be found.

″I’m looking out the window,″ said Jack Chappel, manager of a gas station in the middle of downtown. ″And every building I see except one has people on the roof removing snow.″

As of Friday afternoon, Valdez had received 349.3 inches - 29 feet - since October, said Tom Ward of the National Weather Service office. At least two months of winter remain, and the Valdez snowfall record of 384.7 inches could be buried under just one more medium-sized drift.

On Jan. 16 alone, 47 1/2 inches - 4 feet - of snow fell, a single-day record. The 134 inches so far this month shattered the January snowfall record, Ward said.

One storm after another has blown in from the south and stalled over Valdez, trapped by the wall of mountains that rises above the town, Ward said.

A weather service measuring stick showed the downtown snow depth Friday at 7 feet. But it was deeper than that in other parts of town.

″The snow is basically up to the bottom of your second-story window sills,″ said Police Chief Bert Cottle.

Four vessels in the harbor, including a 40-foot pleasure boat, have sunk from the weight of snow on decks, Harbormaster Tim Lopez said.

″It’s all we can do to keep the docks from sinking,″ he said.

Valdez building codes require rooftops to withstand loads of 90 pounds per square foot, twice what’s required in Anchorage. Whenever weights approach the limit, the Valdez public works department goes on the radio to warn people to get busy.

They got on the radio last week.

In a town built on economic booms - from the Gold Rush to the pipeline to the oil spill - the Big Snow has been a boomlet.

At the start of winter, the going wage for snow shovelers in Valdez was around $7 an hour, said Doris Giusti, manager of the state Job Service office.

″Now we’re up around $16 and even higher than that,″ she said. ″We’ve had jobs paying $20 an hour to shovel snow. People are getting desperate to get snow off.″

Workers have been imported from unemployment offices in Anchorage, Palmer, Glennallen and Tok, Giusti said.

So much snow has fallen that shovelers are running out of places to stack it.

The city, which was moved and rebuilt after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, was laid out so most of the streets end in cul-de-sacs along a park strip through the middle of town.

Loaders and giant blowers pile the snow into mountains at the end of the streets. By the weekend some snow mountains reached almost as high as utility poles, residents said.

Street signs are buried all over town, and cars have collided because drivers couldn’t see around corners, police said.

No one, however, has been badly hurt.

″We did have an individual fall off a roof yesterday,″ said Cottle, the police chief. ″He wasn’t hurt very bad. When the snow’s nine feet deep, there’s not very far to fall.″

Despite the accumulation, Valdez has maintained its record for never closing school because of snow. ″You’re not going to believe this, but it really hasn’t caused us that much of a problem,″ said Harry Rogers, the school superintendent.