Moving the military in the Land of the Midnight Sun
January 12, 2009
The cargo move at the Port of Valdez Nov. 4-7 presented no trouble for the Alaska Detachment of the 599th Transportation Group. Although the barge carrying the cargo arrived late Nov. 4, once it came in, the detachment and contractors worked through lunch to make up the time, and the rest of the move went well.
The weather also held for most of the move. Valdez is known for its heavy snowfalls, averaging about 350 inches a year, according to the Anchorage Daily News. But the detachment had clear, crisp weather for most of the move, with snow only Nov. 6-7.
Bob Meno, chief of the detachment since 2005, said the detachment commonly encounters two main problems unique to Alaska - extremes in weather and tides.
"With Valdez, we don't have a problem with the tides because it's a floating dock," Meno said. "The problem that we have here is there is no rail transportation out, and the weather is so bad in the winter."
Meno said the detachment works closely with the Alaska Department of Transportation to ensure that Thompson Pass, the only way out of Valdez to military bases in Anchorage and Fairbanks, remains open during moves in the spring and fall.
The Alaska Detachment is comprised of four employees who move everything in Alaska except that which goes by air. The detachment is responsible for three Army brigades out of Fort Wainwright and Fort Richardson, as well as for all of Eielson and Elmendorf Air Force Bases.
"Alaska is also planning to add another Army brigade," said Meno.
Meno has worked for the detachment since 1990, so has a lot of experience with SDDC in Alaska. He said the team is now up to full, four-person strength for the first time since he has been employed there.
"This is the first time I'm fully staffed. I brought all three down so they could get oriented and get some experience," said Meno.
The newest member of the team, transport technician Frank Gamboa, has been with the detachment only a month. He was impressed with the speed of the move.
"Although I don't have anything to compare it to, at first I could not understand how the guy driving the forklift could be so fast. I thought there was no rhyme or reason to the way he was setting down the containers. But everything was in the right place to expedite the move out by the trucks," Gamboa said.
Bill Plummer has been a marine cargo specialist with the Alaska Detachment for two years. He said the moves out of Valdez are not difficult for the detachment.
"This is the easiest mission here for us, but for the truckers who do the hauling from here to the bases, it is a 700-mile turnaround" Plummer said. "At least this year the weather is clear and cold. Last year for the move, the detachment had to deal with gale-force winds and heavy snow for all phases of the off-load."
Meno said conditions during spring and fall moves in Valdez do not compare with their winter moves out of the Port of Anchorage.
"For deployments in January for the three brigades, the temperature is zero to minus 10 degrees with wind chill at the Port of Anchorage of minus 45 degrees," Meno said.
The temperature extremes are only a part of the challenge, according to Meno.
"The major problem with the Port of Anchorage is the tidal change of 31 feet," said Meno. "A lot of military vessels are cape-sized and LMSRs, and they depend on the ability to put a ramp down to load. With a big tidal change, we can only work two hours on each side of the two high tides a day.
"The other problem is that the Port of Anchorage freezes up in the winter. Valdez and Seward are ice-free ports," he said. "With a tidal change of 31 feet in Anchorage, that breaks us the ice so we can still use the port, but then the ice in the water is like icebergs.
More complications can arise from cold weather, as well, including the mobility oif the workers.
"As people wear more and more clothes to keep warm in the extreme conditions, they are less able to do the work required. Plus, not all of our equipment that SDDC uses functions in those conditions," added Meno. "WPS scanners don't work if they are out in the cold. The men try to keep the scanners next to their bodies to keep them warm, and then just take them out to scan each bar graph, but a lot of times the equipment will malfunction, and they will have to write everything down."
Concurrent with the move, the detachment also hosted the 1394th Transportation Group, a reserve unit from San Diego, Calif. The group plans to work a move at the Port of Valdez in the spring. It was here to observe this move, as well as to set up arrangements for the planned move in the spring.