Repairs begin as power is restored for most wind-battered Mat-Su residents

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Jan. 6—Update, 8:40 a.m. Thursday: Only about 100 households and businesses in Mat-Su remained without power Thursday morning, according to Matanuska Electric Association. That's down from 22,000 at the peak of a major outage linked to a powerful windstorm that left some homes without electricity since the weekend.

Significant damage remained around the region following the storm that began Saturday and subsided Wednesday. MEA was working to clear trees from lines Thursday and asked anyone who saw trees on the lines in their area to notify the utility with location information and a photo if it was safe to take one.

More winds were on the way Friday for the Palmer, Wasilla, Sutton and Chickaloon, according to a special weather statement issued Thursday evening by the National Weather Service. The forecast calls for strong sustained northeast winds of 20 to 35 mph with gusts of 40 to 55 mph to return Friday afternoon and continue overnight before diminishing Saturday morning. It's possible winds could increase again late Saturday afternoon before diminishing Sunday morning.

Original story:

PALMER — As the winds died down and power returned for many Mat-Su households and businesses, the focus Wednesday shifted to assessing and starting to repair widespread damage from the destructive and prolonged New Year's storm.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District also announced that all but six schools will remain closed Thursday and Friday after being closed since Monday.

School staff availability is complicating reopenings, as well as a lack of bus drivers and attendants for First Student, the district's major transportation provider, the district said in an update Wednesday afternoon. "For these reasons, the District is not offering remote learning. Options for making up school days later in the year are under consideration."

The following schools will be open and have full transportation services Thursday: Glacier View School; Sutton Elementary; Su Valley Jr./Sr. High School; Trapper Creek Elementary; Talkeetna Elementary; and Willow Elementary.

Winds began Saturday and howled to hurricane-force intensity by Sunday, tapering only slightly into Monday and again Tuesday. A peak gust of 91 mph was measured Sunday at the Glenn Highway-Parks Highway interchange and the Palmer Municipal Airport registered one at 88 mph.

Many businesses suffered ripped-off roofs and walls or water damage from burst pipes. Homeowners with plywood for windows contended with pipe-related flooding. Snow drifts and icy roads continued to complicate travel.

Matanuska Electric Association received hundreds of reports of trees and debris on power lines.

In Palmer, Sunday's howling wind ripped the roof off the 50,000-square-foot building occupied by Airframes Alaska. Employees trying to stick it out and protect the business evacuated around 2 a.m. but not before they watched the walls flexing in and out and the roof lifting up and down.

The company makes bush wheels for planes, outdoor gear, and aviation parts shipped all over the world. It did $18 million in business last year and employs 100 Alaskans in Anchorage, Fairbanks and mostly Mat-Su.

Company officials say business is at a standstill given the extent of the damage. They don't expect to get up and running again for two to four weeks.

The storm ripped off the roof, then sent a hail of glacial silt contaminating contents inside, said marketing director Ryan Kedzie.

"We're frozen solid right now," Kedzie said Wednesday, as employees removed shipping materials from the building before everything thawed and rained water everywhere. "All the pipes are frozen. We're probably going to get heat back today."

As of Wednesday afternoon, just over 1,400 households remained without power, down from a high of 22,000 earlier in the week but up slightly from earlier in the day, according to MEA. Members were advised to call 907-861-7900 if they needed transportation to a shelter, assistance with getting oxygen or any other emergent need.

MEA earlier this week said it could be the end of the week before power is restored entirely.

[At Palmer's airport, volunteers stepped up to secure aircraft as wind tossed some]

Numerous businesses remained closed Wednesday due to wind damage or burst pipes.

Abundant reports circulated of neighbors helping neighbors, whether that meant clearing trees and shoveling drifted businesses and driveways or putting up families and friends who otherwise faced frigid homes.

Busy contractors tried to keep up with emergency calls for help with problems like burst pipes and malfunctioning heating systems.

Palmer resident Jennifer Hoadley said her pipes thawed by Wednesday, but at least one ruptured so her home is unlivable because the water is off. She's staying with friends and said it will be a week before a plumber can come out.

"I could fix it myself, but then I'm not sure insurance would reimburse me," Hoadley said. "It's a mess."

Governments in Mat-Su were just starting to assess the damage, city and borough officials said Wednesday.

"We are beginning that process now but don't have anything pulled together yet," borough manager Mike Brown said in an email. "Individual assistance from the State just opened yesterday so we'll also begin to see some data for that in the coming days and weeks."

Four people stayed in an emergency shelter in Palmer on Tuesday night and 11 stayed in a Wasilla shelter, according to Taylar Sausen, regional communications director for American Red Cross of Alaska. The Red Cross is tentatively planning to close the Palmer shelter later Wednesday and transition those clients over to the Menard Center in Wasilla, Sausen said.

"We will keep the Wasilla shelter open until the borough advises us it is no longer needed," she said.

Winds had calmed in most areas by Wednesday morning, but the forecast called for sustained north winds at 15 to 30 mph, with gusts up to 35 to 45 mph, to continue through Wednesday evening and diminish further Wednesday night, according to a special weather statement from the National Weather Service. "Loose debris may still be affected by these winds and should still be secured where possible."

Alaska Army National Guard units staged at an armory near Wasilla helped transport and unload six pallets of water to the MTA Events Center in Palmer at the request of the Mat-Su Emergency Operations Center, according to Guard spokesperson Dana Rosso.

Palmer is making water available after concerns surfaced about problems finding water in stores earlier this week, city manager John Moosey said. Anyone needing water can get up to two 5-gallon containers per person.

Two tactical vehicles arriving Wednesday were expected to help support any requests involving challenging access conditions due to snowdrifts or downed trees, Rosso said. Nine soldiers from the 297 Regional Support Group were assigned to the detail.

MEA crews, with the help of contractors and Golden Valley Electric Association, continued to address outages throughout its service area.

"We are prioritizing outages with the combo of largest and longest out as well as outages near critical infrastructure" such as schools, emergency services, senior facilities or businesses, Matanuska Electric said in a Facebook update Wednesday morning, adding that the next phase of response will tackle smaller outages. "(S)o it may seem like it's slow going but we are just getting down to the smaller groups of folks out, and have all crews out working on them. We will keep going until we have everyone back on."

Like people around the borough, a number of homes and businesses in Wasilla had pipes that froze and then burst as electricity was restored and heat kicked in again, said Robert Walden, the city's acting public works director.

A handful of major businesses experienced similar problems Wednesday, Walden said. His own office had burst pipes, too.

Homeowners should immediately contact a local plumber if they are experiencing broken pipes, he said.

"Try to shut the water off their main in their boiler room where it comes into the home and shut their breakers off to the well pump, if they're on a well," Walden advised. "If they're on city water, call into us at public works (907-373-9010) and our crew will try to get out there as soon as possible to shut off the water valve going to the home."

A number of homes have also experienced problems with the sewer system, he said. Homeowners can try to run hot water into their sinks in hopes of warming a frozen sewage line, but should otherwise call a professional to help carefully unthaw the lines.

The school district said it's continuing to respond to "numerous maintenance issues including domestic water line breaks, fire suppression/sprinkler systems, boiler failures, and complications from flooding."

The district is working toward having all schools open by Monday, the update said. More information will be provided Friday evening.

Families with open schools Thursday were advised to drive carefully and allow plenty of time to reach their destination, according to the district update: "Take caution in areas that may not have adequate lighting or traffic signals and be prepared for slick driving conditions throughout the Valley. It is strongly recommended that staff (and) students wear ice cleats if they have them."

Meals will be available from 10:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday for any district families at the following locations: Colony Middle School; Houston Jr./Sr. High School; Palmer Jr. Middle School; Redington Jr./Sr. High School; Teeland Middle School; and Wasilla Middle School.

The borough has waived construction and demolition disposal fees for residential customers only from Wednesday through Sunday at the Central Landfill and transfer stations.

"This is intended to encourage the proper and timely disposal of waste and assist local residents who experienced damage and loss to their personal property from the severe winter storm," the borough said in an Facebook update.

Reporter Tess Williams contributed to this story.

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