'Epic' flooding on Alaska's Dalton highway near Deadhorse


© Loren Holmes / ADN
The Dalton Highway is washed out south of Deadhorse on Thursday, May 21, 2015.

Unprecedented flooding continues to interfere with daily operations on the North Slope oil patch after surging waters wiped away swaths of the Dalton Highway and isolated a section of Deadhorse, the jumping-off point for the sprawling industrial region.

"This is just epic," said Mike Coffey, commander of the unified incident command, a response team consisting of the state, the North Slope Borough and oil companies. "People who have been here for decades say they've never seen anything like it."

The state has estimated the costs of the damage and repairs since March at $5.1 million. The federal government may pay for much of that, since the icing and flooding on the highway has been declared a disaster, said Coffey, the director of state transportation maintenance and operations.


© Loren Holmes/ADN
A washed down stop sign


The event was caused by heavy summer rains followed by extensive freezing this winter, trapping the water in place, then a rapid spring warmup that has brought record temperatures to the region.

"It's kind of a perfect storm for things to go south," said Coffey.

Viewed from the air for some 20 miles south of Deadhorse, the highway and elevated trans-Alaska pipeline appear like spines above a sea of water, with the Sagavanirktok River tumbling in white currents across sections of the highway. One section of severed road appears to stretch a half-mile long.

It's impossible to know the real cost of the damage since many sections of the gravel road are still swamped with water. It's also impossible to know how long until the highway is opened, said Coffey.

"The best guesstimate is the high water is expected to last another four days," he said. Officials hope repairs can begin immediately after that.

The trans-Alaska pipeline -- and the oil flowing through it that produces the bulk of state revenues -- isn't threatened, said Michelle Egan of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

The flooding has been expected since March and April, when portions of the Dalton became an icy luge course with meltwater on top of it, forcing the state to temporarily close the sole road to the North Slope.


A washed out section of the Dalton highway

At the time, hundreds of supply truckloads were put on hold and fuel tanks had to be flown in and hauled across the frozen tundra on "rollagons" -- big-wheeled freight trucks. Gas prices skyrocketed, doubling to almost $10 a gallon.

After that closure, North Slope operators and contractors bulked up on supplies, expecting more flooding with the spring melt. They got it after the river, which empties into the Arctic Ocean on the east side of the highway, began pouring across it, with two major breaches at about 15 and 20 miles south of Deadhorse.

Earlier this week, the floodwaters threatened the airport, forcing the state to excavate large chunks from the road that were already eroding in order to create an outlet.

The waters trapped three of Deadhorse's numerous camps -- elevated gravel pads supporting buildings and equipment.


Three inaccessible work camps