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Bad weather disrupting travel in Alaska


With major transportation links between Anchorage and Fairbanks severed but high water starting to recede, crews labored Sunday to fix sections of highway and railroad blown out by flooding in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The Parks Highway, closed north of Trapper Creek since early Saturday when a 50-foot stretch of road washed out at Troublesome Creek, is expected to reopen by noon Tuesday, a state highway official said.

The Alaska Railroad, which experienced washouts and landslides on tracks between Talkeetna and Denali National Park, planned to resume normal passenger and freight trains overnight Sunday, a spokesman said.

Water began subsiding across the region Sunday, although numerous smaller roads remained closed because of continued flooding. The National Weather Service extended the flood warning for Susitna Valley rivers through 8 tonight. Among the worst were the Talkeetna and Little Susitna rivers and Willow Creek.

The flooded region includes scattered subdivisions and homesteads over a wide area, and it was difficult to get a handle on exactly how many dwellings were affected. The Mat-Su Borough had no official estimate as of Sunday night, although it appears dozens of homes, particularly in subdivisions around Houston, had been swamped to varying degrees. The borough was to begin a formal damage assessment this morning.

There were no reports of injuries. Borough and state officials warned residents to boil drinking water from wells saturated by standing water.

On Sunday afternoon, the Little Su roared below the Parks Highway as two National Weather Service researchers measured the flow of the muscular brown ribbon below. The river was at more than 14 feet Saturday night -- it was 12.5 during major flooding in 1986.

"As far as our records go, we've never seen this river this high," said Ben Balk, a hydrologist with the agency.

Two of three Red Cross emergency shelters set up over the weekend had shut down by Sunday. About a dozen people sought refuge Sunday night at the third, the Willow Community Center. Sixty to 70 stayed there earlier in the weekend. As residents came and went through the day, emotions varied, said Bill Morrow, with the Mat-Su chapter of the American Red Cross. People were restless. Some left pets behind on their flooded property.

"Some of them don't want to talk because they had to swim out," Morrow said.

The flooding came after a week of constant rain capped by a sudden deluge. A slow-moving weather system dragged across Cook Inlet and slammed into the Talkeetna Mountains on Friday. The wet air rose fast, condensed, and the skies opened.

Meteorologists said gauges measured more than 6.5 inches of rain in Talkeetna in the week leading to Saturday, with more than 3.5 inches on Friday alone.

The double shot of highway and railroad shutdown stranded thousands of tourists trying to get to and from Anchorage to Denali and area lodges, or Fairbanks. The railroad estimated 1,300 passengers had been expected to travel by train Saturday alone, many of them with cruise lines, and alternate arrangements had to be made, including flying some and busing others on the Glenn and Richardson highways to Fairbanks.

Some visitors originally booked on trains toward Denali National Park or Fairbanks waited, sometimes all day, for space on planes headed north.

"There are only so many flights and there's only so many ways right now to get north or south unless you're coming down the Richardson Highway," said railroad spokesman Tim Thompson, who fielded calls from as far away as California.

Crews were clearing debris on the rail line between the Little Su and Nenana, Thompson said. He estimated that 50 to 75 people were working on the cleanup. He didn't know how much the repairs will cost.

The railroad will also run a special flag-stop train between Talkeetna and Hurricane starting this morning to pick up any stranded passengers at remote sites who expected to board Saturday or Sunday trains canceled by flood damage.

Meanwhile, crews raced to rebuild two flood-damaged bridges on the Parks Highway at Troublesome Creek and the Chulitna River.

At Troublesome, floodwaters blocked by debris ate away the bank, the abutment and about 50 feet of road, said Kurt Devon, Mat-Su district superintendent for the state Department of Transportation. At Chulitna, a patch of road three by ten feet collapsed, Devon said.

Telephone service north of Talkeetna was knocked out Sunday, as were Internet and wireless services for some Valley customers of ACS Telecommunications Services.

Gov. Frank Murkowski declared the area a disaster Saturday. The borough requested help from the National Guard and other security forces on Sunday.

Members of the Air National Guard, Alaska State Defense Force and Alaska Naval Militia, with volunteers and other workers, protected homes with thousands of sandbags, especially in the King Arthur Court area off the Parks Highway, where about 30 homes were threatened.

Officials say flood-related closures will affect school bus transportation on five roads. A landslide Sunday afternoon blocked part of Buffalo Mine Road between Palmer and Sutton, the borough said.

In Houston, armed military police with the state defense force blockaded King Arthur Court and nearby subdivision roads once the water rose Saturday evening. Houston Mayor Dale Adams said he'd heard a few reports of looting. In one case, a woman said she saw a strange man carrying a backpack and wading through chest-deep water, Adams said.

Borough officials won't have a count of homes hit by floodwaters until things dry out and people return, said Bea Adler, a public information officer.

"That may take a couple of days; we don't know," Adler said.

With more rain forecast Sunday night, some residents eyed the still-swollen Little Su and crossed their fingers.

At the Riverside RV Park along the Parks Highway in Houston, a hose pumped water out of the crawl space beneath the home and office of owners Sheila and Ken Mortensen.

Earlier, a salmon swam by.