January 20, 2011 |

Winds up to 61 mph smack town

Three days of high winds wreaked havoc last weekend, falling trees, damaging buildings and cancelling the sailing of the ferry Aurora up Lynn Canal.

Sue Libenson was in her office above the bookstore on Main Street about 6:30 p.m. Friday when a six-foot-long plate-glass window shattered a few feet away from her desk, in an adjoining, interior office.

"It was an explosion. It didn’t just fall in," said Libenson. The window’s frame smashed across a desk where resident Jane Pascoe had been working on a laptop computer an hour before. "Shards of glass were everywhere," Pascoe said. "I’m glad I wasn’t in there and that I took my computer with me."

An anemometer atop a tower on FAA Road maintained by Alaska Power and Telephone registered a peak weekend reading of 61.8 mph at 6 p.m. Friday, according to utility power manager Danny Gonce.

According to Gonce, winds exceeded 40 mph starting 11 p.m. Thursday and started exceeding 50 mph at 8 a.m. Friday, sustaining that velocity until 1 a.m. Saturday. Winds were over 30 mph for the weekend, while the temperature danced around zero.

Gonce was out at 11 p.m. Friday, rescuing the Alcan 200 banner across Main Street that also became a wind victim. Although the reinforced banner is slit to allow winds to pass through, they weren’t enough for Friday’s gales, which tore out the banner’s grommets, Gonce said.

More work for utility workers came earlier Friday evening when wind broke support straps on a shopping-bag-sized fiber case, dropping it 20 feet from a telephone pole near the Captain’s Choice Motel, and severing phone service for about half the customers out Lutak Road.

"When that hit the ground, it put microbends in the fiber, so we had to readjust the splice holders," said Bruce Messerschmidt, AP&T’s general manager of telephone operations. Service was restored Saturday morning and the box was secured with a new mechanism. "Actually, I’m happy with the outcome, considering the conditions. If all we did was lose that case, we did pretty well," Messerschmidt said.

Ferry system general manager John Falvey said frigid temperatures and icing led to cancellation of the ferry. Ice builds up above the decks on the 235-foot Aurora-class ships, making them top-heavy and potentially unstable.

"The captain himself was very concerned about turning around and heading into that north wind," Falvey said. "He was icing up pretty bad" while returning to Juneau Saturday in 55-knot winds and 11-foot following seas.

"That boat can run in those seas. It wasn’t so much the sea conditions as it was the cold," Falvey said, noting that air intakes on the ships also can freeze over, slowing or stalling engines. It’s been about five years since the smaller, monohull ships – including LeConte – have been docked due to icing, he said. "It’s a rare event."

On Friday morning, convenience store manager Eric Ferrin arrived at work to find much of the vinyl siding peeled off the west side of the building at Old Haines Highway and Mud Bay Road.

"It got under one edge and the next thing you know, you’ve got a bare wall," Ferrin said. The siding had withstood storms for 18 years, he said. A store employee who lives in an apartment above the store said the force of the wind shook the building three times during the night.

Despite the severity of conditions, most people he’s talked to seem to have taken the wind storm in stride, Ferrin said. "Down south it’s a hurricane, but here it’s just a small craft advisory."

For the record, "small boat advisories" are announced for winds 25-38 mph. "Gale warning" applies to winds 39-54 mph. "Storm" or "violent storm" winds are ones that blow 55-72 mph. "Hurricane-force" winds are ones stronger than 72 mph.