Coast Guardsmen live, work in the snowiest city in America

Coast Guard personnel from Valdez, Alaska, help clear several feet of snow from the roof of a building in town Jan. 11, 2012. Record amounts of snow, coupled with a lack of snow removal equipment in Valdez shut down many public services in the community. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Allie Ferko.

Coast Guard personnel from Valdez, Alaska, help clear several feet of snow from the roof of a building in town Jan. 11, 2012. Record amounts of snow, coupled with a lack of snow removal equipment in Valdez shut down many public services in the community. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Allie Ferko.

The city of Valdez, Alaska, is so small one can walk from end to end in about 15 minutes. With the backdrop of the majestic Chugach Mountains, Valdez is touted the snowiest city in America by NOAA and The Weather Channel averaging 30 feet of snow each year. The city is linked to Anchorage more than 300 miles away by the Richardson Highway. With a population of just over 4,000 people, the town is rife with history from a booming gold rush, the famous 1964 earthquake and tsunami, avalanches and a major oil spill.

The amount of Coast Guardsmen has since grown in Valdez over the years and Coast Guard Forces Valdez now totals nearly 115 personnel from the cutter, small boat station, marine safety unit, electronics support detachment and sector field office. All members, regardless of unit affiliation, enjoy a sense of community in the small town.

“Living in small town Alaska, you experience an amazing sense of community and camaraderie both on and off the water,” said Lt. Allie Ferko, public affairs officer and director of the Prince William Sound VTS. “Everyone in Valdez helps their neighbors without thinking twice, whether it be raising money or making dinners to help a community member suffering from medical ailments, looking out for your neighbors’ kids while they are playing outside, shoveling feet of snow off the roof of the elementary school, or pulling three mariners out of the water after their boat sank. If someone needs help, the community is there for them.”

The Coast Guard has been in Alaska since before it was even recognized as a state. Coast Guard cutters have been patrolling the Bering Sea and bringing aid to the villages of rural Alaska dating back to the 1880s; many cutters have been homeported in Valdez, decommissioned and replaced over time. Currently, Valdez is home to the Coast Guard Cutter Long Island.

On a rare sunny day in Valdez, Alaska, Coast Guard Cutter Long Island sits in its homeport in preparation of a three-day earthquake and tsunami drill, March 26, 2014. The drill was held to test federal, state and city emergency preparedness in the event of natural disasters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Diana Honings.

On a rare sunny day in Valdez, Alaska, Coast Guard Cutter Long Island sits in its homeport in preparation of a three-day earthquake and tsunami drill, March 26, 2014. The drill was held to test federal, state and city emergency preparedness in the event of natural disasters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Diana Honings.

Long Island is a 110-foot Island Class patrol boat. The cutter and its crew of 17 are typically underway approximately 185 days of the year conducting law enforcement, search and rescue and fisheries enforcement missions throughout the rich fishing grounds and environmentally sensitive region of Prince William Sound.

“Working on Coast Guard Cutter Long Island is a tremendous experience and opportunity,” said Ens. Brad Davis, operations officer, Long Island. “Performing our missions here adds a level of difficulty and danger because of the unique weather and environment. What they call a hurricane down in the Lower 48, we call Thursday. Being stationed on a patrol boat in Alaska is definitely one of the most exciting experiences the Coast Guard has to offer.”

Another critical Coast Guard safety and security resource in Valdez is the small-boat station, established in 1998. The station houses two 45-foot Response Boats – Medium and a 25-foot Response Boat – Small. The station is staffed with approximately 20 personnel who conduct year-round search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, and ports, waterways and coastal security missions in Prince William Sound including patrolling the port’s security zones around transiting tankers and oil loading berths at the Valdez Marine Terminal. 

Valdez is home to the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that transports crude oil from the fields on the North Slope of the state to Valdez where it is loaded onto tankers and shipped out to the contiguous United States. With the notable pipeline terminus, thousands of miles of coastline and rich fishing grounds to monitor in the region the Coast Guard saw fit to settle a marine safety unit in Valdez. Following the grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in 1989, which spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil, Coast Guard marine safety missions in Valdez became even more robust, including oil spill prevention regulatory requirements outlined in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and mandatory vessel participation in the local vessel traffic service.

Personnel stand the vessel traffic center watch at Marine Safety Unit Valdez, Alaska. The watch is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center tracks the movements of vessels in and out of Valdez and through the vessel traffic lanes in Prince William Sound as well as ice calving from the nearby glacier. Coast Guard photo by MSU Valdez.

Personnel stand the vessel traffic center watch at Marine Safety Unit Valdez, Alaska. The watch is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center tracks the movements of vessels in and out of Valdez and through the vessel traffic lanes in Prince William Sound as well as ice calving from the nearby glacier. Coast Guard photo by MSU Valdez.

Marine Safety Unit Valdez conducts a myriad of prevention, response, and preparedness activities to ensure the safety and security of Prince William Sound, including commercial vessel inspections, fishing vessel training and safety, pollution prevention and response, maritime law enforcement, and casualty investigations.  The MSU is also responsible for operating the 24-hour Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service Prince William Sound, as well as inspection of waterfront facilities regulated under the Marine Transportation Safety Act for compliance with federal guidelines.  In conjunction with agency partners and local maritime stakeholders, MSU personnel regularly participate in large-scale drills and exercises to test and practice contingency preparedness both on and off the water.

“The City of Valdez, State of Alaska and the Coast Guard work well together, sharing resources, information and providing assistance to each other when needed,” said Ferko. “We share a common goal of keeping Prince William Sound and its citizens safe, so it is natural that we might work together towards these goals.”

Valdez based Coast Guardsmen have built strong professional relationships with the city, state, and maritime operators in Valdez to ensure any response to pollution or natural disaster activity goes smoothly. These relationships were tested during the winter of 2012 to 2013 when a record setting 26-feet of snow blanketed the small Alaskan city in a very short period of time. Coast Guard personnel joined with City of Valdez employees and community members to remove heavy snow from the roofs of local schools, businesses, and homes.  One Coast Guard crew even removed snow from a resident’s first floor bedroom, after the snow caved in a door on the side of the home. Strong partnerships were also displayed during the BBC Arizona response in 2013, when, following a small fire aboard the ship, the Coast Guard discovered leaking transformer oil from the ship’s many containers and coordinated a multi-agency collaborative spill prevention and decontamination response prior to allowing the vessel’s departure from port.

“In both cases the Coast Guard worked effectively with our federal, state and local partners to clear the threats and resume normal operations,” said Ferko.

While the Port of Valdez is known as the United States’ northernmost ice free port, this refers to the port freezing over, not the presence of ice. The port is adjacent to the Columbia Glacier, which calves regularly into the Valdez Arm and shipping lanes regularly used by large vessels transiting in and out of Valdez. In addition to monitoring vessel traffic, the staff of the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service Prince William Sound monitor the presence of floating ice from the calving glaciers and local tides and weather, closing and opening the shipping lanes as needed to ensure tankers and other large vessels transiting the area can do so safely. Traffic, ice, and weather monitoring are conducted through a variety of vessel traffic service surveillance sensors, including automated identification systems, radar, VHF-FM radio, closed circuit television, and data from weather buoy and weather stations throughout the Sound.

Members of U.S. Coast Guard Station Valdez conduct a search and rescue mission during exercise Alaska Shield 14 here, March 29, 2014. Alaska Shield 14 is an exercise that involves state, federal, military, and local agencies, designed to test response and coordination efforts during a disaster and is modeled after the 1964 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated much of South Central Alaska including the city of Valdez. U.S. Army photo by Spc. True Thao.

Members of U.S. Coast Guard Station Valdez conduct a search and rescue mission during exercise Alaska Shield 14 here, March 29, 2014. Alaska Shield 14 is an exercise that involves state, federal, military, and local agencies, designed to test response and coordination efforts during a disaster and is modeled after the 1964 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated much of South Central Alaska including the city of Valdez. U.S. Army photo by Spc. True Thao.

These three operational units would not be able to run smoothly without the assistance of Sector Field Office Valdez and Electronics Support Detachment Valdez.

The ESD is a detachment from the larger unit at Coast Guard Base Kodiak. The shop personnel maintain equipment and systems at each unit in Valdez including: navigation and communications systems, computers, phones and remote electronic equipment sites through Prince William Sound.

“Our small seven person crew may be fixing telephone connections on Monday, adjusting cutter electronics on Tuesday, and then flying out to an island to remove snow from hill top microwave communication dishes on Friday,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike Yrjana, supervisor, ESD. “Prince William Sound is remote and helicopters, snowshoes, ATVs, and snowmachines are routine methods of travel for us. Rain, sleet, snow, and wind do not stop our technicians from preventative maintenance and casualty repair, but weather may require us to spend multiple nights at a remote site waiting for the weather to clear. ”

Last, but by far, not least is Sector Field Office Valdez who ensures the Coast Guardsmen who live and work in the region are fit for duty and well provisioned. SFO staff maintain a wide variety of Coast Guard services in Valdez, including housing for members and their families, administrative and human resources services, logistics and procurement, grounds keeping and snow removal, building maintenance,  armory support, and a cutter maintenance assist team.

The theme of solid support and professionalism is echoed throughout the ranks of Coast Guardsmen and from the residents of the community of Valdez.

“The City of Valdez is very fortunate to have members of the Coast Guard and their families as our friends and neighbors,” said Sheri Pierce, city clerk, City of Valdez. “The city and Coast Guard have worked side by side to sandbag riverbanks, save residents property from flood waters and helped shovel snow from school building roofs when unexpected heavy snowfall created the need for emergency action. Valdez has a very special relationship with our Coast Guard and hope that no matter how long they are stationed in Valdez, they feel happy to call our community their home.”

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