Icebreaker, tanker near Nome; other Alaska towns buried in snow

Story highlights

  • "This is big news for us," says the mayor of ice-in town
  • The ships have broken through ice ridges up to 4 feet high
  • A November storm blocked regular fuel shipment to Nome
  • Officials close a stretch of highway as towns deal with heavy snow
A Coast Guard icebreaker and a tanker carrying 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products could arrive in icebound Nome, Alaska, as early as Thursday, the Coast Guard said.
The Sitnasuak Native Corp. of Nome contracted the double-hulled, Russian-flagged tanker Renda to deliver the fuel products to the community of 3,600 on Alaska's west coast after ice formed over the Bering Sea in the wake of a ferocious November storm that prevented the last delivery of the season via barge.
The U.S. Coast Guard's only operating Arctic icebreaker, the Cutter Healy, is escorting the fuel tanker through the ice-covered waters in the first-ever attempt to supply fuel to an Arctic Alaska settlement through sea ice.
The two-ship convoy was 97 miles from Nome early Tuesday, Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, told CNN. The convoy could arrive late Thursday or early Friday.
The Healy battled through 50 miles of ice Monday, she said, stopping for crew rest and maintenance around 7:30 p.m.
During the journey, the Healy has broken through ice ridges as high as 4 feet and plate ice up to 2 feet thick, Coast Guard Capt. Craig Lloyd, who is coordinating the mission, told CNN.
Nome's mayor told CNN she was hopeful the ships meet the current schedule, but "ice is dynamic" and could slow their arrival. Officials also want to ensure the operation is done safely, Mayor Denise Michels said.
"People are excited here in town. This is big news for us," said Michels.
Tuesday's low was around 25 degrees below zero, another shivering day in a cold snap that descended on Nome.
Francis said unmanned aircraft from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks equipped with ground-penetrating radar had flown over the ice between the ships and Nome and determined it is thinner than what the ships had been through so far.
The ships will have to break through about 300 miles of ice during the complete journey, the Coast Guard said. The tanker will get to within about a half-mile of Nome harbor and transfer the fuel stocks to on-shore storage by hose, the Coast Guard said.
Lloyd said Nome had enough fuel to last until about March, but the delivery was attempted now because it would have been even more difficult then.
The village of Noatak, near the Arctic Circle, also has reported fuel shortages, officials said.
Other towns and villages in the state are coping with separate weather-related problems and heavy snow.
Cordova, an isolated coastal town of about 2,000 people some 150 miles east of Anchorage, was one of the hardest-hit locales, with the state National Guard sending Guardsmen and resources after weeks of record snowfall left the city buried under an 18-foot wintry blanket.
Cordova is "isolated off the state highway system," according to the National Guard, and the sea and airport are the only ways in and out of the area.
The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said 50- to 60-mph wind gusts and 18 more inches of snow to Cordova came Monday night and early Tuesday. Officials are worried about the threat of avalanches near the town's airport.
The oil port of Valdez also was coping with heavy snow loads.
In a normal year, Cordova and Valdez get about 300 inches of snow. "We have received that not in a season but the last 60 days," said John Madden, director of the state emergency department.
About 75 military personnel and civilians were assisting Cordova, with a focus first on clearing roads for emergency vehicles and ensuring homes occupied by the elderly and families with children don't suffer roof collapses from all the snow.
Two commercial structures collapsed and two boats top-heavy with snow turned over there, Madden said.
Valdez and Cordova are among the most-prepared cities in the nation for nasty weather, Madden told CNN. They have extensive plans and hold cold-weather exercises.
But "even with all their best efforts, they are falling behind," Madden said.
A storm and two avalanches, meanwhile, prompted state highway officials to close Seward Highway between Potter Marsh and Girdwood, southeast of Anchorage.