Strong winds hammer Mat-Su, leading to widespread damage and power outages

A semitruck is overturned
A semitruck blocks part of the road on Monday near mile 34.5 of the Glenn Highway. (Screenshot of Alaska 511 webcam)

Heavy winds hammered the Matanuska-Susitna Borough over the weekend, leading to widespread damage and power outages for thousands of residents as temperatures hovered around zero degrees. The winds — reaching up to 91 mph Sunday near Palmer — flipped small planes, overturned semitrucks, toppled trees, tore off roofs and closed Mat-Su schools for at least two days.

The forecast calls for strong winds and cold temperatures to persist in the Mat-Su area until Wednesday evening. And the local utility said it could be the end of the week before power is restored to everyone.

“To describe the situation that we’re facing is: Every time we get some folks back on, we’re seeing another outage elsewhere,” said Jennifer Castro, a spokesperson for the Matanuska Electric Association.

RELATED: Dunleavy issues disaster declaration for Interior Alaska and Mat-Su storms

Emergency responders say, so far, they haven’t heard of any deaths or significant injuries as a result of the weather.

“I think we heard of one restaurant where some glass shattered and there was a minor injury to an individual,” said Mat-Su manager Mike Brown at a news conference on Monday. “So we have seen spot reports, but we’ve been very fortunate not to have any significant injuries and/or loss of life at this point.”

By 9:30 p.m. Monday, more than 13,000 households still did not have power, according to the Matanuska Electric Association.

High winds continued, with a gust of 74 mph at the Wasilla Airport shortly after 10 a.m., said Aviva Braun, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Ice covers the entrance of a store.
The Carrs grocery store in Palmer on Monday. Pipes broke and a portion of the roof is gone. (Hillary Walker)
Ice covers a shopping cart and walls.
The Carrs grocery store in Palmer on Monday. (Hillary Walker)
Ice covers the entrance of a store.
The Carrs grocery store in Palmer on Monday. (Hillary Walker)

A high-wind warning is in effect until 6 p.m. Wednesday for the Matanuska Valley, including Palmer and Wasilla, with winds forecast to 35 to 45 mph and gusts up to 75 mph. Wind chills could drop as low as negative-35 degrees. 

“This could be dangerous and life threatening for those without power,” said Braun. “Frostbite can develop in as little as 15 minutes in these conditions.”

Mat-Su emergency officials have asked residents to stay home and shelter in place, if they can, until the storm is over.

If they can’t, there’s also shelter options. The Red Cross has set up sites at the Menard Sports Center in Wasilla and Palmer Junior Middle School.

Castro, with the Matanuska Electric Association, said continuing winds and short daylight hours have slowed progress to restore power.

“Working in these winds, in these conditions, takes a lot more time to make those kinds of extensive repairs,” she said

Castro said crews are working 16-hour shifts with additional staff arriving from nearby areas and as far away as Fairbanks to help get power back online. She said they’re prioritizing larger outages.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Monday declared a disaster emergency for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which opens up funding.

“At one point over the weekend, some 20,000 households in the Mat-Su lost power and were in the dark. Severe wind gusts have torn apart buildings, flipped semis on highways, and left thousands of homeowners concerned over freezing pipes,” said Dunleavy in a statement.

Dunleavy’s declaration also covers the Interior, which had an unprecedented Christmas storm.

The Mat-Su Borough School District has closed schools on Monday and Tuesday. Superintendent Randy Trani said at the news conference that the district would make an announcement before noon on Wednesday about whether it would extend the school closures. 

“The main reason for that is our parking lots, they just are not safe for students,” said Trani. “And then we can’t have kids waiting at bus stops, not to mention we have so many families and staff who were dealing with broken pipes and no electricity.”

https://twitter.com/NWSAnchorage/status/1478245553649508353

The borough has also closed its facilities Monday, including its animal shelter, libraries and central landfill. 

By Monday morning, only a few people had checked into the Red Cross shelters, though with continued cold temperatures and prolonged power outages, Borough Manager Mike Brown said it’s likely that more people could start checking in shortly.

Mat-Su residents said they were still hearing substantial wind gusts Monday afternoon, but were grateful to have made it out of the worst of the storm. 

“I haven’t experienced this unless I was either in the Gulf Coast or in a hurricane or the Far East in a typhoon,” said real estate agent Mark Babbitt. 

At his farm house just north of Wasilla, he said he saw spruce trees with trunks over a foot in diameter snap in the woods around him. 

“When you hear that snap it sounds like a lumberjack fall,” he said. “It’s pretty significant. I mean the trees on our property are easily 50, 60, 70 feet tall.”

He said he drove through the main stretch of Wasilla and saw some of the worst damage, including to a KFC building. 

“The sides are totally ripped off. You can just walk in and out of it,” he said. “There’s no way to board it up currently.”

Sarah Larimer, an owner of Country Cannabis, near the interchange on the Glenn Highway where the 91 mph gust was recorded, said winds there had blown away a steel dumpster and smashed the window of an employee’s car. 

“We’ve seen three semi trucks flip. We’ve seen a full size enclosed trailer flip on the roundabout. Right now, there’s a semitruck on the bridge,” she said. 

Some Anchorage homes also lost power overnight. Winds reached 54 mph at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport Sunday, with winds around 40 mph downtown, according to the weather service.

Braun, the meteorologist, said that the winds and cold temperatures were caused by a mass of frigid air in the Yukon Flats area moving southward and accelerating downhill into the Gulf of Alaska, creating a “bora wind event.”

She said records were still being set, but as of 10 a.m. Monday, it was already the fourth-longest bora wind event in the Palmer-Wasilla area on record. 

Borough officials say residents can get updates by following the Mat-Su Borough on Facebook or by calling 907-861-7900. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that students would be learning remotely during school closures. Classes are canceled for students at least through Tuesday.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.
Tegan Hanlon is the deputy digital editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at thanlon@alaskapublic.org.

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