Weather causes power, traffic glitches

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2003

Expect a white Christmas. At least, that's what the National Weather Service is saying; though depending where you are on the Kenai Peninsula, a look outside may or may not appear to justify that prediction.

To say the weather has been a little crazy might be an understatement. Geographically, it's been about as variable as it can get. Take the last few days, for instance. What had been frigid cold weather a week or so ago, turned warmer this week, bringing with it heavy, wet snow mixed with rain to the much of the north and central peninsula, rain along the Homer Bench and snow in the upper elevations in the south.

Driving everywhere has been a challenge, and state and municipal road crews have been busy trying to keep up.

The wet snow also drove tree limbs into power lines around Sterling on Tuesday night, causing a power outage affecting about 600 Homer Electric Association customers in the Sterling area that continued well into Wednesday, according to Joe Gallagher, press spokes-person for HEA.

"We started taking outages about 10:30 last night (Tuesday)," he said late Wednesday morning. "Crews are out in the field. They worked throughout the night. The hardest hit was the Robinson Loop area."

As of about 4 p.m. Wednesday, power had been restored to all but about 200 customers in the Sterling area, Gallagher said.

Seward, which owns its own electrical utility, also was hard hit by heavy, wet snow, which caused outages in that area. HEA sent a four-person crew to help the city restore power there, Gallagher said.

Gallagher said the variable weather has caused some difficulties. HEA has an ongoing program to eliminate hazards to power lines caused by tree limbs, but when very heavy snow falls, limbs on trees outside the line rights-of-way still can lean in and impact those lines, he said.

HEA also has had to contend with high winds down in the Homer area, and with the myriad of headaches caused by the freeze and thaw of recent days.

"There have been huge fluctuations," Gallagher said. "First you have temperatures down as low as minus 20, and 10 days later, its 37 degrees above."

Despite the damp and ugly look, this week's atmospheric milieu won't last, said meteorologist Dan Peterson with the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

"We are probably going to see a white Christmas (on the peninsula)," he said Wednesday.

Low-pressure systems originating in eastern Russia have swept in across western Alaska recently and settled over Prince William Sound, he said. That has caused warm, southerly air to flow in off the Gulf of Alaska, bringing with it warm, moist conditions.

"And you get what you see now," Peterson said.

These are patterns fairly typical of early freeze-up and break-up, he said. It won't last.

Looking at weather models, he said, the wet conditions should last through the weekend. There are two low-pressure zones west of the peninsula that also will settle over Prince William Sound.

"Eventually, those lows will slide to the east and we will get a northerly high-pressure condition," he said.

That will push cold air down across the peninsula, bringing in northern precipitation in the form of cold, dry snow. Once that kind of condition is established, it becomes difficult for a warm, southerly airflow to dislodge it, Peterson said.

"A white Christmas? I'm going for it," he said.

Looking out still further into the heart of winter, climate predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say to expect near normal January and February temperatures with precipitation slightly higher than normal, Peterson said. That means snow in January and February.

At least it won't be like the winter of 2002-2003 when unseasonably high temperatures persisted throughout most of the winter, causing severe flooding in November and December, green grass in February, and high winds in March.

The variability of the weather has had local road crews busy. The road maintenance departments in Kenai and Soldotna have been fighting the variable conditions.

"The crew has been performing excellent," said Don Deitz, maintenance manager for the city of Soldotna. "We try to stay ahead of it, but sometimes that's not possible."

The city's maintenance budget isn't unlimited, so they try to do what they can in as reasonably short a time as possible, he said.

"Actually, the city is pretty easy to clean up and we are geared up pretty well to take care of the sidewalks," Deitz said. "We try to sand twice a day at the major intersections."

His biggest problem is traffic in the rights-of-way that sometimes block plowing efforts. That, he said, is just one of the standard headaches.

Over in Kenai, it's much the same, said Jack La Shot, public works manager.

"We're trying to keep up with the different conditions," he said. "Everything has been slick. We're trying to move slush and apply sand where it's needed. It changes from hour to hour."

During the warmer hours, the city road crews have been trying to chip away at the accumulated ice pack on the city subdivision roads, he said. The focus switches to removing snow, though, when the flakes descend.

Calls to reach officials with the road maintenance outfits of the Alaska Department of Transpor-tation and the Kenai Peninsula Borough were not immediately returned. Office personnel at the state and borough maintenance offices said those who could speak for those departments were in the field on the job.

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