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High winds wreak havoc on Homer

Storm causes power outages, rips up roofs, downs trees

Posted: February 12, 2014 - 5:49pm  |  Updated: February 12, 2014 - 5:55pm
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Flags snap and snow swirls as winds increase around noon on Friday.
  Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News
Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News
Flags snap and snow swirls as winds increase around noon on Friday.

Gradually increasing winds alerted southern Kenai Peninsula residents that something was amiss last Thursday evening.

Decorative wind chimes on porches began to make noise. Then the chimes began banging against walls. Then, well, before things died down late on Friday, gusts exceeding 60 miles an hour had rocked the area, toppling trees, knocking out power, ripping roofing off buildings and creating dangerous driving conditions.

Starting about 9:45 p.m. Feb. 6 when the power line in the McKeon Flats went down, cutting off power to Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek, power outages cascaded all over the Kenai Peninsula. The Gerry Willard Generation Plant in Seldovia got power back up Thursday evening for Seldovia and the villages, but as of Wednesday the line hadn’t been repaired as Homer Electric Association crews struggled to untangle downed lines, snapped cross beams and broken poles.

That was pretty much the story on Friday as winds bent and broke trees, bringing down lines. One power pole next to Homer City Hall snapped in two, with lines dangling near City Clerk Jo Johnson’s car.

“Any wire you see, you make the assumption it’s an energized wire and you stay away from that wire,” said HEA spokesman Joe Gallagher.

Updates throughout Friday from Gallagher showed how widespread the outages swept across the peninsula. On the lower peninsula, about 1,500 customers from Anchor Point to downtown Homer lost power on Friday, affecting West Hill Road, Baycrest Hill, the Old Sterling Highway, Diamond Ridge and downtown Homer, as well as scattered areas like Bay Avenue — an outage that shut down the Homer News and forced reporters to write in local coffee shops. Throughout the peninsula, about 6,000 customers lost power at some time during the storm, Gallagher said.

“This was an interesting storm for Homer Electric. Lots of times we’ll have a storm that’s significant in one location, but not one that’s across the board like this,” he said. “We saw these high winds everywhere on the system.”

HEA had 23 linemen out working on Friday, and hired another 14 more through contractors. The main goal was to restore power, but HEA took a lot of calls of trees hanging on lines that had not yet taken out power. Gallagher said crews were still working on calls like that on Tuesday. Anyone who sees trees threatening lines can call 1-888-8-OUTAGE, or 1-888-868-8243.

The loud noise of a tree trunk being snapped in two brought Dianna Hahnlen out of bed around 3 a.m. Friday. She and her husband, Rod, and their two children — Ashley, 18, and Brandon, 15 — live on Mattox Road. Then, at 6 a.m., a second tree was ripped apart.

“We had one fall behind that didn’t hit the house and one fall on the side. It was all good at that point,” said Hahnlen of the lack of damage.

Later in the morning, while she was getting ready for work, the wind was bending smaller trees around the home so forcefully that the tree tops were hitting the Hahnlens’ roof. When one of her children suggested she look outside, Hahnlen said she opened the door and shut it immediately after seeing what has happening.

Shortly before 9 a.m., as she was leaving for work, Hahnlen saw two more trees that “were slowly falling, being uprooted.” When wind and gravity finally finished the job, the trees were across the Hahnlens’ home.

“The only thing that saved the place is that they fell so slow,” said Hahnlen. “It took them an hour to finally fall. The trunks were so big I couldn’t even wrap my arms around them. … If they would have come down fast, it would have destroyed the place, but they came down so slowly. It was amazing. God was really looking out for us.”

Fallen trees also blocked roads. Homer Police got reports of trees fallen on Ocean Drive, East End Road, East Skyline Drive and Rochelle Road, as well as numerous reports of trees on power lines. One caller reported loose roofing damaged a car’s windshield.

Around mid-morning, with snow beginning to swirl in the increasing wind, a FedEx plane from Anchorage managed to land at the Homer Airport. Tie-downs — one on each wing, one securing the tail section to the tarmac and one from the front strut to a forklift — kept the plane steady while cargo was unloaded and reloaded. An attempt to place cones around the aircraft proved futile, as gusting wind sent them bouncing along the runway.

The Cessna 208 remained at the airport until “after the winds subsided,” said Bonny Harrison of FedEx Global Communications, adding that anyone wanting to track a package’s arrival or departure during storms or at anytime can call 1-800-46-33339 (GO-FEDEX) or visit the web at fedex.com.

“Our Global Operations Center and team of 15 meteorologists in Memphis, where FedEx is headquartered, work with flight crews to determine what is safe, while following all federal guidelines.” 

The storm began as a low pressure system northeast of Kodiak on Thursday night, according to Dave Stricklan, a hydrometeorological technician with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. Readings from the Homer Airport measured the peak gusts at 63 miles an hour. The snow was caused by “a little bit of moisture that got mixed in with the deepening pressure,” said Stricklan.

Saturday morning it was as if nothing had happened. The clouds were gone, the snow had stopped, the sky was blue and quiet prevailed.

“Right now we’ve got some sun, but that’ll bring in some clouds and a slight chance of snow later this week,” said Stricklan on Tuesday. “Wind-wise we’ll probably have 15-20 miles per hour on Thursday, but we’re not going to see that storm again. Not this week anyway.”

It appears the storm blew away the warmer, spring-like weather the peninsula has enjoyed. Stricklan forecast daytime high temperatures of 15-25 above, with nighttime temperatures ranging from 15 above to minus-5. He credited the stretch of warm weather that began around the middle of January to a southerly warm flow that persisted.

The National Weather Service draws its information on the Kenai Peninsula, specifically the area around Kachemak Bay, from several sources.

“The Homer Airport has an ASOS (automated surface observing system) that the National Weather Service installed, monitors and maintains,” said Stricklan.

“And members of the public have put weather stations on their houses and post the weather on the Internet, so we do get unofficial wind speeds that are fairly accurate.” 

These stations are listed on the NWS website under “weather data” as Mesonet Observations. For up-to-date weather information, visit the NWS Alaska Region at arh.noaa.gov. 

As of 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, the NWS forecast calls for clouds and chances of snow through Monday, winds between 5 and 25 miles per hours, temperatures from zero to the mid 20s.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com. Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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