About the time U.S. Sen. Mark Begich was writing a letter to the Coast Guard pleading for ice-breaking help to get 1.6 million gallons of fuel to Nome, residents in that Northwest Alaska community of 3,600 were looking out the window at, lo and behold, the Coast Guard's only functioning icebreaker.
Was it coincidence?
The 420-foot medium-duty ice-breaker apparently anchored a mile off Nome's coast unexpectedly and a helicopter delivered an ailing crewmember to Nome, said Nome Mayor Denise Michels.
"It's a total fluke," laughed Michels. "It's ironic." Residents saw the ship's lights this morning as it anchored up about a mile off the port during the surprise stop before it heads to its winter port in Washington state.
The Coast Guard said the Healy had been conducting research in the Barrow region near Alaska's northernmost community before heading south toward Nome. The ship switched out a crewmember using a commercial helicopter, said Kip Wadlow, a Chief Petty Officer and Coast Guard spokesman in Juneau.
Now, it plans to spend the next two weeks in the Nome area, conducting scientific research, Wadlow said.
Nome's ice-clogged port is shut down. Partly because of that, a Delta Western tug and barge hauling the big load of fuel last week failed to reach the remote Inupiat community.
Nome is unconnected by road to the outside world, so fuel is usually barged in. Residents worry unleaded gas prices this spring will soar from a pump price of about $5.40 if the canceled delivery means costly emergency shipments of fuel must be flown in later this winter.
The canceled delivery had Delta Western and others searching for an ice breaker before one suddenly arrived on Nome's doorstep.
Thursday morning, after news of the boat's arrival spread, Michels called Coast Guard headquarters in Juneau. First, she offered up some hospitality: Would the crews like a tour of the Gold Rush-era town?
"We also offered them vehicles to get things done," she said.
Then she got to more serious matters. Since the city needs that fuel, "if there is a way, could the Coast Guard possibly break the ice to escort the fuel barge in?"
The turned-back barge is now in Kachemak Bay, hundreds of miles and two weeks from Nome. Still, the Coast Guard is working with Delta Western, the city and the company that ordered the fuel, Bonanza Fuel, to see what it would take to break through the ice, said the Coast Guard's Wadlow.
The Healy draft is too deep to negotiate Nome's shallow harbor. It's far away, but still visible from town, Michels said. One prospect is that the Healy could break the ice a mile of the way to dockside, and a second vessel, perhaps an ice-capable tug, could punch the rest of the way through to give the barge an opening, Michels said.
Delta Western is also wrestling with questions, but it's ready to help, said Kirk Payne, the petroleum distribution company's vice president. Is it safe to send its crews to Nome? What are the environmental risks? How thick is the ice and what kind of equipment would be needed to get the fuel to the dock?
Cook Inlet Tug and Barge operates ice-capable tugs in Cook Inlet, said Payne. "The question is, are they available? That's what we're trying to ascertain. And will they work for what we're trying to do?"
Nome's crisis raised the ire of Alaska's senators, both of whom on Thursday dashed off letters to the Coast Guard seeking a solution.
"While I am sure the officers and crew of the CGC Healy are anxious to return home to Seattle, I ask that you use the Healy and other assets available to assist the people of western Alaska with any fuel or supply shortages they face, if possible," Murkowski said in her letter to Adm. Robert Papp Jr., Coast Guard commandant.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said in his letter to the admiral:
"This pending fuel shortage in rural Alaska highlights the lack of Coast Guard icebreaking capability in the state," Alaska's junior U.S. senator said. "Elsewhere in our nation, the Coast Guard frequently operates icebreakers and icebreaking tugs to keep waterways open and to allow for delivery of fuel and other critical commodities."
But apparently not in Alaska, he noted. Last January, the Coast Guard broke through ice in Chesapeake Bay to keep fuel shipments flowing in Maryland. Similar help would be useful in Nome, Begich noted.
Begich notes that an executive order calls for the Coast Guard to keep navigation moving nationwide to benefit commerce, and that the Coast Guard's own rules say it will provide icebreaking services to communities in immediate need of heating fuel as well as medical assistance and food.
The community doesn't face an immediate crisis, Nome mayor Michels said. And while heating fuel was one of three fuels being transported by the barge, it's the gasoline that may be in shortest supply as winter drags on. Begich said he wrote the letter to highlight this latest example of the country's icebreaking limitations.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com