Within the past 24, Sitka’s streets have turned into an ice rink. The roads are so slippery that school closed early today (01-12-17), and a handful of accidents were reported to local police. The RIDE, Sitka’s public transit system, also stopped running for the day, but is now back in service and will resume normal hours tomorrow.
The groundwork for Sitka’s ice issue was laid on Wednesday night. The air was cold enough for freezing rain to fall, forming a glaze. Conditions were treacherous, said Superintendent Mary Wegner, especially for school buses. “What we were experiencing as we were putting out salt and sand around the district is that as soon as we put out that grit material, it would rain and freeze a layer on top of that and now you had slippery, shiny grit. It wasn’t effective in helping people navigate the icy roads and sidewalks,” Wegner said.
And on the way to school, a bus full of students slid off the road on Georgeson Loop and into a ditch. No one was injured. The students got off the bus and walked escorted to Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School.
Wegner decided it was best for school to close and students to get home before dark. She worked closely with the bus company and bus drivers for early pick-ups that began 11 a.m. and ended at 12:45 p.m.
Wagner added that while extreme weather doesn’t often shut down school for the day, there is some precedent. “Steve Bradshaw, when he was superintendent, closed the school district once for icy road conditions for the same exact type of situation. And John Holst, when he was superintendent, closed it once for extreme snow,” Wegner said.
Extreme cold weather is predicted for the entire state of Alaska, but Southeast will probably be spared freezing temperatures. Temperatures are rising and expected to be in the mid-40s this weekend. But, Harry Green, the city Maintenance and Operations Superintendent, said that Sitkans should still take care. “We just fixed the water leak on Lake Street and we had to get through two feet of frost. So the ground is still frozen. So when the water hits the ground it’s just freezing automatically,” Green said.
Green is in charge of streets and snow removal for the city. His day has been pretty hectic, with two sand trucks and a chemical de-icing Sitka’s roads.
When it comes to snow and ice removal in Sitka, the city is only responsible for the roads. Property owners are responsible for adjacent sidewalks, some of which are coated with ice. This afternoon, a man fell and was transported to the local hospital.
The city’s sand and deicing budget was cut by $10,000 this year, but Green says it’s not affecting services yet because the winter has been fairly mild. But, he doesn’t think the budget should be cut further. “Just to keep things safe. When we’ve had a bad winter, like 5-6 years ago…I’m comfortable where we’re at right now, but if we did cut it further, I’d be concerned,” Green said.
As for de-icing the sidewalks around homes, businesses, and other property, Green says that salt will damage concrete over time and advises using specialty chemicals.
Sitka Schools are also closed tomorrow (01-13-16) for a teacher work day.