Weather extremes in Whittier wreak havoc
By Ken Smith
Whittier is a place of extreme weather, and in the last several weeks high winds and heavy rain have wreaked havoc on the little port city along western Prince William Sound.
Babs Reynolds, who worked at the local weather station for 25 years until it closed in July 2011, still tracks the snowfall in Whittier and keeps a watchful eye on the local weather.
“We’ve had 108 inches of snow since Oct. 12, and a year ago we had 233.85 inches of snow at this time on Jan. 11,” she said, “and I’m not sure we’re going to have any snow. Brenda’s two reindeer threw their antlers and usually don’t do that until the end of March.” Babs’ sister, Brenda Tolman, who also worked at the weather station for 25 years, owns two reindeer that live in a pen across from the Begich Towers apartment building.
As for the snow, Reynolds, who has lived in Whittier for 34 years, said the recent spell of rain all but washed it away, creating pools of water around the city, which for Whittier isn’t all that unusual.
“We’ve got almost nothing left in snow,” she said. “We’ve been running between 35 and 40 degrees the last few weeks. It’s always extreme in Whittier.”
Drastic weather changes are routine in Whittier, which is one of the reasons Reynolds likes to remain an observer of the snow, despite the fact she no longer gets paid to do it.
“I’ve been measuring this snow on my own because I’m interested,” she said, “and last year I was happy to do it because we had so much snow, but I remember more snow than that in the past. Everybody was saying the snow was going to be worse than last year. It’s been over 10 years since we had record snow like last year. That was in 1999. Right now there’s no snow on the ground; it’s pretty much ice where it’s flat. I’m sure if you were looking down from the sky it looks like we have streets of silver.”
High winds are also typical in Whittier, creating unusual problems. December 31, a 65-foot section of the city’s passenger dock in front of the Inn at Whittier was damaged by winds with gusts up 60 miles per hour. One section of the lower gangway broke loose and was wedged into the decking of the passenger dock.
“We roped it off and secured it for safety decisions,” said Sue Miller, the Whittier Harbormaster. “The weather and the wind made it unsafe to do anything until Jan. 10. We worked with Dojer, and he used his vessel and unwedged the walkway and was able to tie it onto the side of the boat and travel to Smitty’s Cove where the public works people took it out of the water to examine it on land. The wind was totally unsafe until Jan. 10. For the next few months, we’ll be looking into how much damage was done and the repairs needed. It’s used by charter vessels to drop off and pick up people and the hotel uses it.”
High winds created another problem a couple of weeks ago when sheets of metal roofing were blown off a stationary trailer across from the Anchor Inn.
“There were about 15 sheets that were blowing everywhere,” said Reynolds, who was almost hit by one when she drove here vehicle past the trailer. “They were airborne, right across from the Anchor, and sheets were ripping down the road in the wind. They looked like they wanted to go to Cordova, but they got them stopped. I was driving down the street and one came across the street and passed by my car. That’s when I called the police.”
The police and city shop workers nearby frantically attempted to gather the sheets, chasing them through the streets, she said. “Those poor guys were hauling those tin sheets and then the wind would get them just right and they were gone again. The wind would just pick them up and pull them out of their hands. It was kind of hairy, those tins are dangerous stuff.”
But in a city of extreme weather like Whittier, it’s all just accepted with a shrug of the shoulders, a part of everyday life.
The weather is a byproduct of a city located on the Sound surrounded by steep mountains.
“If you’ve lived here very long, you know there’s no other weather like Whittier,” Reynolds said. “Girdwood weather is nothing like Whittier’s weather. It’s usually warmer here than it is in Girdwood, and we get more wind. A lot of the Southeast weather sweeps into here and stops at the mountains. We call it the ‘Pineapple Express’ that comes up from Hawaii and hits the mountains and doesn’t go over the top.”