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Officials monitor lake created after avalanche cuts off Alaska town

Officials start to plan how they will clear the snow, ice and water left from two massive avalanches blocking the only road leading into Valdez, Alaska. KTUU's Mallory Peebles reports.

Grocery store shelves are stocked, express mail is on its way, and additional flights and ferries are available.

As life in Valdez, Alaska, marches on after an avalanche cut off the tiny port city’s only highway, transportation officials are monitoring another hazard: A half-mile-long lake now pooling behind the avalanche that has the potential to cause flash flooding and damage to homes.

Officials say there isn’t an immediate danger in the Keystone Canyon area, although an updated report is expected Tuesday.

“There are just too many unknowns at this point,” statewide maintenance engineer Mike Coffey told the Anchorage Daily News.

An avalanche last Friday sent debris crashing down on the Richardson Highway. Another one on Saturday contributed to the pileup, eventually forming a massive mound about 100 feet tall and up to 1,500 feet long.

DoT via Reuters

Road traffic to Valdez, a town of about 4,000 residents, was cut off from the rest of the state after avalanches over the weekend blocked the only road in the coastal Alaskan community.

No one was trapped or killed on the rural road, although one vehicle hit into the snow, the state Department of Transportation said. The driver was unharmed.

Valdez officials said Monday in a news release that the highway will remain closed until at least Sunday.

The avalanche ended up blocking off the Lowe River, which runs along the highway. The river is supposed to be frozen this time of year, but warmer weather has allowed it to pool behind the snow dam, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

An aerial tour revealed the water isn’t staying stagnant, and is actually moving through an old railroad tunnel and underneath the snow pack, Valdez officials said. They insist that’s a good thing.

“This is exactly what needs to happen to drain the lake that is built up behind the avalanche in a controlled way,” the city's news release said.

The DOT is also watching the water level and reported that it is receding.

“The water level has to be reduced to (a) point where it is not covering the road before they can safely begin to move snow and debris,” the release said. “It could still take several days for this much water to drain out.”

As of Monday, state officials didn’t foresee the snow dam failing. A voluntary evacuation order remained in effect as a precaution.

Avalanche experts told NBC News the unseasonably warm weather was to blame for the landslide. The area has had a string of days in the 30s and 40s coupled with rainfall, making the snow pack on the mountain unstable, they said.

A high of 40 is forecast for Valdez on Tuesday.

“This avalanche cycle is a historically significant event,” said Sarah Carter, education coordinator and forecaster with the Alaska Avalanche Information Center in Valdez.

This southern Alaska city is known for its port, where ships unload oil from the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline, which ends in Valdez. The infamous Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 occurred about 25 miles offshore.

Last week’s avalanche didn't appear to have affected the underground pipeline, officials said.

Residents, meanwhile, say they’re all-too familiar with snowslides, although not ones of this magnitude.

“It’s massive,” Kelly Deaton, a local coffee shop owner, told the Anchorage Daily News.

She and her son had been traveling Friday morning, and were on their way back into Valdez when the slide occurred. But with the road closed, she had to turn around — and later booked a flight to Anchorage so her son wouldn’t miss his SAT exam.

“I’ve lived here 20 years and I’ve never seen anything up close and personal like that,” Deaton told the newspaper.

To help ease residents’ concerns about getting around, additional flights and ferry service have been added.

Valdez officials said Safeway, which operates the only grocery store in the city, sent a barge of supplies and has stocked its shelves of produce and dairy and other essentials. Another delivery is expected Saturday.