Take a low-pressure weather system packed with moisture coming out of the North Gulf of Alaska, a strong westerly wind bringing in cold air, slam them together and you get what Homer has gone through since Sunday: one big heck of a winter storm.
“The timing of the cold air arriving when it did and the fact that there was a wealth of moisture with this system, it gave a really good setup,” said Kaitlyn O’Brien, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Anchorage, on Tuesday.
Starting Sunday night, the latest weather wallop dumped 2 feet of snow or more in some areas before the weather service lifted a winter storm warning on Tuesday morning. The storm kept some students and staff from getting to school on Monday morning. That afternoon, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District released students 90 minutes early. On Tuesday, the district canceled school in the Homer and Anchor Point area.
With 35 mph winds on Monday night and Tuesday morning, the hills above Homer saw drifts 6 feet high or more. On social media, people posted photos of cars buried in mounds that looked like sleeping woolly mammoths and driveways that disappeared overnight.
Monday morning the Homer Police put out a warning not to drive on East Hill Road, West Hill Road and Skyline Drive until plows could clear the roads.
Lt. Ryan Browning wrote in an email police responded to six vehicles in the ditch and 13 more that were stuck or needed assistance since Sunday. Police also found two drunk drivers in the ditch. There also were two vehicle collisions with moose.
“People were getting stuck left and right going up East Hill,” Browning wrote. “I watched three vehicles drive right off into the snow berms on Skyline because visibility was so poor.”
Some people got stuck in intersections and just walked away, Browning wrote. He asked that if people get stuck in intersections they call police to keep the road clear.
City of Homer Public Works crews have been putting in 10- to 14-hour days since Thanksgiving trying to keep roads plowed and sanded and sidewalks clear. On Tuesday, Public Works Director Jan Keiser said the higher elevations of Homer got 30 inches of snow on Monday.
“We’re still digging them out, spreading sand on the road, trying to get slush off the road before the next big freeze comes,” she said. “We’re always playing catch up.”
Not only are plow and truck drivers wearing out, so is equipment, Keiser said. On Tuesday one snowplow driver said a grader limped in with a transmission problem. One snow plow operator also is out sick.
It takes 14 hours with three graders to clean city roads spreading from the side roads off West Hill, East Hill and Skyline Drive all the way to downtown Homer. The state maintains the Sterling Highway, West Hill Road, East Hill Road and other state roads in town, except for Pioneer Drive. The city also plows roads built to city standards and those adopted into city responsibility through annexation.
Keiser said with staff shortages Public Works is recruiting other city staff who can drive sand trucks or the small plow that clears sidewalks.
“It’s like, ‘Can you run a sand truck? What do you know how to do?’” she said.
Having city workers operate less-specialized equipment frees up more experienced drivers to run the graders.
“It’s like a game of Stratego, moving your little pieces around trying to keep the ground covered,” she said. “… We’re just trying to keep our equipment together with duct tape and baling wire.”
O’Brien said on Tuesday there’s some residual moisture to the east and in the Kenai Mountains, but that should not affect Homer and the western peninsula. For Wednesday there was a chance of snow that should be light, she said. Another low front is moving in over southwest Alaska that might not hold together for Thursday or Friday and that could bring more snow.
“The models are tracking this into Prince William Sound,” she said. “It could be another similar event.” She added that forecasters were not totally confident in that speculation.
On Wednesday morning, though, the National Weather Service issued another winter storm warning for the western peninsula south of Clam Gulch from Thursday morning through Friday morning. The warning said heavy snow was possible, with total accumulations of 8 to 16 inches with higher amounts in the hills north of Homer and winds gusting up to 35 mph.
The longer range forecast is for clear and cold weather over the weekend, dipping below zero.
“Usually on these lows, once the low center moves to the east, we tend to get a lot of cold weather down from the north,” O’Brien said.
Keiser asked that people not park on streets and that plow drivers clearing driveways not push snow into ditches or rights of way. She also said children should not play in snow berms or snow piles.
One driver had a close call as he worked, she said.
“The operator looks in the mirror behind him and sees this kid popping out of a pile,” Keiser said. “Something like that could be a real tragedy.”
Browning advised people keep winter equipment in their vehicles, including warm clothing, blankets, water, flares and cellphone. He also thanked people for helping police shovel, push and pull vehicles with their own trucks.
“It was pretty rad to have community members jump in to help where they could and be patient with us while we had roads shut down,” Browning wrote.
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.