Wild weather not unusual

Freeze, thaw cycle causes road havoc, typical of peninsula winter

Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

It’s that time of year again. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.

Another all-too-common winter freeze-and-thaw cycle rolled over the Kenai Peninsula last week, bumming the outdoors crowd, white-knuckling wary drivers and forcing state and local public works maintenance crews into the drenching downpour to unclog drains and culverts and give the water someplace to go other than the streets.

“It was challenging, to say the least,” said Carl High, Kenai Peninsula district superintendent for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. “Moose Pass got hit as hard as anywhere.”

Avalanches closed the Seward Highway twice during the past week. DOT crews responded to a slide at Mile 34 of the Seward Highway on Thursday when a little over two feet of snow fell in six hours. Two other slides near Mile 21 on Saturday closed portions of the highway until late Sunday.

DOT crews used a howitzer to try and bring down snow made heavy and unstable by the warm temperatures and rain. The gun did not cause any of the avalanches that closed the roadway, however, High said. The howitzer was not in use Monday, he said.

Meanwhile, state road crews have been working overtime across the peninsula, attempting to keep the roads clear and icy spots sanded.

“Be patient and be careful,” High said. “Take your time.”

According to National Weather Service figures, peninsula communities saw varying amounts of precipitation falling as rain and snow, measuring anywhere from a half inch to as much as seven inches of rain equivalent.

Warm temperatures had as much or more to do with putting water in the streets in many places, however. The snow that blanketed much of the peninsula’s low-lying areas last week began melting rapidly when temperatures rose Thursday. The resultant runoff over the next couple of days added to maintenance problems, especially in Homer.

“The weather doesn’t seem to want to make up its mind,” said Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer. “We have had quite a few drainage problems, and we have been doing a lot of culvert thawings.”

Meyer said he drove to town down East Hill on Monday morning. By then, the thermometer had dipped well below freezing again, yet there was water flowing down the roadway. In this case, the snow that fell late Sunday actually served to insulate the ground from the air, and water continued to flow under the snow.

“Then when the water does reach the surface, it freezes and glaciates,” Meyer said.

Central Peninsula maintenance crews faced many of the same headaches.

“We came in on Saturday to take care of things,” said Doug Schoessler, maintenance manager for the city of Soldotna.

Overflowing storm drains had to be cleared at Knight Drive and Kobuk, but elsewhere the system seemed to be carrying the runoff away properly, he said. As for the roads, the thawing and refreezing made intersections tricky.

“The roads are not too bad now,” he said Monday morning. “We sanded early. Intersections are what needed it the most.”

The bit of “corn” snow that fell Sunday adhered to the frozen surfaces and actually provided drivers more traction by Monday, he said.

Kenai crews also had to deal with a few plugged storm drains but have had few, if any, problems with freezing water pipes. Most are buried 10 feet deep and essentially immune from cold, said Keith Kornelis, Kenai public works manager.

Roads were another story.

“We have been using an awful lot of sand this winter,” Kornelis said. “It thaws and then turns into sheets of ice. We’re doing a lot of sanding.”

The road surfaces themselves appear to be holding up, he said.

“It’s been a real busy weekend,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Roads Director Gary Davis. “We got snow and rain all at the same time. We had equipment and crews out in all our units all over the borough.”

Borough road crews have been fighting glaciation in Kasilof, along Funny River Road and in Ridgeway, Davis said.

“Mostly we just sand them and try to steer the water to the culverts, and we thaw the culverts out,” he said, adding it has been a pretty typical winter.

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