Disaster declaration made for Matanuska-Susitna Borough as high winds continue onslaught

Businesses have sustained damage and thousands remain without power
Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 9:58 AM AKST|Updated: Jan. 3, 2022 at 6:04 PM AKST
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WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) - Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials made an emergency disaster declaration Monday after high winds ripped through southcentral Alaska over the New Year’s weekend and continued into the work week.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the declaration on his Facebook page, and in a press conference held Monday morning at the Mat-Su Borough Assembly Chambers, officials said that Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District schools will be closed a second day Tuesday, with an announcement to be made by noon on Tuesday regarding Wednesday’s schedule.

The borough is asking residents to shelter in place for the time being. If people cannot shelter at home, they are asked to go to one of two shelters that have been set up in the borough.

Widespread power outages were seen across the Valley starting Saturday, affecting thousands of Matanuska Electric Association’s customers. By Monday evening, more than 15,000 members were still without power, according to an online outage map provided by the company

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Jennifer Castro, spokesperson with Matanuska Electric Association, said winds began picking up around 6:45 a.m. Saturday, and it wasn’t long before crews began to be dispatched after that.

“It’s just been nonstop ever since that time,” she said.

Castro said she anticipates having all power restored “by the end of this week.”

The total number of customers without power peaked around 22,000 at one point over the weekend, Castro said in the press conference.

“To describe the situation that we’re facing is every time we get some folks back on, we’re seeing another outage elsewhere,” she said. “And so we haven’t really been able to make a whole ton of headway in terms of see that number ultimately come down.”

According to Mat-Su Borough Public Affairs Director Stefan Hinman, two American Red Cross shelters are open in the Valley for residents. One is located at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center at 1001 S. Clapp St. in Wasilla, and another that was originally at the Mat-Su Senior Services Center in Palmer will be changed Monday evening at 8 p.m. to be located at the Palmer Junior Middle School at 1159 S. Chugach St.

According to an email from the American Red Cross of Alaska, both shelters will be open overnight to people needing a warm place to sleep.

An official with the National Weather Service said a maximum gust of up to 91 mph was recorded at the Glenn Highway interchange with the Parks Highway, and a gust of up to 88 mph was reported at the Palmer Municipal Airport. The National Weather Service has extended the high wind warning for the area through 6 p.m. Wednesday. Gusts of 60 and 70 mph are still expected, the warning states.

Officials also said no loss of life has been recorded thus far in the wind storm, despite the damage seen to structures around Palmer and Wasilla, but added that there have been some “spot reports” of injuries from shattered glass.

A KFC/A&W restaurant in Wasilla suffered significant damage during the wind storm Jan. 2, 2021.
A KFC/A&W restaurant in Wasilla suffered significant damage during the wind storm Jan. 2, 2021.(Alaska's News Source)

In the Mat-Su, planes have been flipped over at the Palmer airport, at least two semitrucks also tipped over this weekend. Local businesses have been reporting damage, some of them opting to stay closed for the time being. A wall was completely torn off a KFC and A&W restaurant on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. The Wasilla Police Department wrote in a Facebook post that the building suffered “a catastrophic collapse.”

“Please avoid the area due to flying debris and emergency vehicles,” the post stated.

Disaster declarations have also been made for several other Alaska communities. Dunleavy wrote in a social media post Tuesday afternoon that he has declared state disaster emergencies for the Mat-Su, along with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Upper Tanana Basin Regional Attendance Education Area, Denali Borough and Copper River Basin REAA.

Aviva Braun, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, described what’s been happening from a weather perspective. Extreme cold in the area is compounding the issue of the high winds, she said, with temperatures near zero. Wind chill temperatures of 35 degrees below zero have been occurring in the Mat-Su, she said.

A small plane rests on its roof Jan. 3, 2021, after high winds ripped through the Matanuska...
A small plane rests on its roof Jan. 3, 2021, after high winds ripped through the Matanuska Valley.(Alaska's News Source)

Data is still being analyzed, but Braun said that as of Monday morning, this is the fourth longest wind event of its kind in the Mat-Su area.

Winds gusts are expected to slow down throughout the day Monday, and through Wednesday, but Braun said that due to the nature of the event, the wind warning will remain in effect through Wednesday.

“We will have wind chill values 20 to 35 below zero expected in combination with the winds that we are currently experiencing,” she said. “This could be dangerous and life threatening for those without power, as frostbite can develop in as little as 15 minutes in these conditions. So we want people to be aware of that and make sure to take precautions as necessary.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct that a high wind warning has been extended through Wednesday, rather than the shelter at home advisory from the borough.

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