Flood damage along Richardson Highway disrupts trucking, limits internet and cell service

A photo from above showing a washed-out bridge and a muddy, swollen stream
The flash-floods triggered by recent heavy rains tore out most of the Bear Creek bridge over the Richardson Highway, and damaged six others in a stretch from milepost 218 and 234. (Alaska Department of Transportation photo)

A stretch of the Richardson Highway south of Black Rapids remains closed today after heavy rain over the eastern Alaska Range Monday triggered mudslides and flash-flooding that washed-out one bridge and damaged six others.

The flooding also damaged a fiber-optic cable, limiting cellphone and internet service throughout the region.

The National Weather Service has for days now been advising that runoff from snow melt in higher elevations is filling rivers in the eastern Interior to bankfull. And when a storm dumped up to 5 inches of rain around Black Rapids on Monday, the creeks that channel all that runoff spilled over their banks, blowing out the Bear Creek bridge and damaging six others.

“There’s a lot of damage, and we’re still assessing it,” said Danielle Tessen, a state Department of Transportation spokesperson.

Tessen said Tuesday that the flooding damaged bridges over Boulder Creek, Lower and Upper Suzy Q Creeks and Falls Creek.

“But the big damage is really at Darling, Gunnysack and then Bear Creek, where the whole bridge washed-out,” she said.

Tessen says DOT has sent about 20 workers and several pieces of equipment into the area from both the north and south approaches to assess damage and begin repairs. But with more rain forecast over the next several days, she says that stretch of the Richardson will remain closed.

“There will be no travel between milepost 218 and 234 for the public through the weekend,” she said.

Tessen says the state is detouring traffic around the closure onto the Alaska Highway and the Tok Cutoff. “It’s going to add an hour and a half to your drive, but at least you can get from Point A to Point B,” she added.

Alaska Trucking Association Executive Director Joe Michel says that means it’s likely products being brought up the Rich may be arriving late for the next several days.

For example, he said, “There is quite a bit of fuel that comes out of Valdez that is heading up the Richardson up to Fairbanks.”

The washout at Bear Creek also damaged a fiber-optic cable that runs along the Richardson. throttling internet and cellphone service for customers throughout the eastern Interior. Alaska Communications spokesperson Heather Marron said the company’s customers are being affected, because it uses some of a Valdez-based telecom’s cable bandwidth.

“Copper Valley Telecom’s infrastructure, along with other telecom providers, has been impacted by flooding,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “Alaska Communications purchases capacity on this fiber, so therefore some of our customer services are impacted.”

Delta Junction-based Vertical Broadband is one of those telecoms affected by the damaged cable. Company officials didn’t return a call Tuesday, but a recorded message says Vertical Broadband has had to re-route its service through a different cable.

“There’s now one fiber path for all of Delta Junction to connect to the Internet. This is through Fairbanks. This means that most of Fairbanks now has one fiber path to the Internet, as well,” the message stated.

Alaska Communications said in a written statement that the damage and its ripple effects have significantly reduced the company’s capabilities. The statement says the problem will slow internet service for all customers of telecoms that used the now-damaged cable. And it says it doesn’t have an estimate on when full service will be restored.

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