Kivalina school year postponed by storms

Kyle Hopkins

Two weeks after school was to begin in the coastal village of Kivalina, the students are still sleeping late. Classrooms are empty, teachers are scattered to neighboring towns and it's anyone's guess when classes will resume.

As a string of August storms pounded the northwest Alaska Inupiat community, a river that serves as the water source for the school and washeteria surged to the highest levels on record. The torrents scattered and sank pipes that feed the local water plant, school district officials said, and the river water thickened with sediment.

With no clean water for the 130-student schoolhouse and teacher housing, superintendent Norman Eck canceled classes. Emergency crews plan to begin repair work this week using replacement pipes paid for by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Eck, whose district has lost more than $100,000 in salaries and travel costs in the delays, hopes to see the school open by Oct. 1.

"We have not yet decided on what our school calendar will be, but it could be that we end up having to have school six days a week," Eck said.

Rita Raymoth, 17, can't wait for classes to start. Even summer vacation can get boring.

"Just going to (Boys & Girls clubs). Having Eskimo dance practice. Walking out with my friends," she said. "It's all the same."

Local governments, meanwhile, are looking to the state to help pay the bill. The Northwest Arctic Borough and city of Kivalina declared the water shortage a disaster in mid-August and are asking the governor to do the same.

On Wednesday, the city wrote that the problem had worsened with additional damage to water system infrastructure and called for nearly $350,000 to pay to refill the water plant, shield the landfill from future flooding and replace piping.

(During the August storms, high water in a lagoon east of the village flooded the landfill, according to the Northwest Arctic Borough.)

"If the school cannot open, the community worries it will need to begin flying the children out of town," wrote Vice Mayor Austin Swan Sr. An elder has been drinking Pepsi because he or she could not take drinking water from the river, he wrote.

Residents still have rainwater and donated bottled water to drink. But even in a village where most homeowners haul their own honey buckets to the landfill, schoolhouses need treated water and won't open until the problem is fixed, the district says.

As of Friday, the state had not decided whether to make a disaster declaration in Kivalina, a step necessary to unlock state money for the repair effort, said Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman Jeremy Zidek.

A meeting of the disaster policy cabinet is scheduled for this week. Gov. Sean Parnell will make the final decision.

"If there was a situation where the borough or the local government didn't have the resources to respond, then the state would step in," Zidek said.

For now, the Northwest Arctic Borough has purchased 76 cases of bottled water and 72 gallon jugs for the village, said Wendie Schaeffer, deputy director of public services. The city of Kotzebue has donated six 55-gallon drums of safe drinking water, she said.

"Red dog is bringing a barge down with fresh drinking water for the community. It should probably be on the beach about this time or coming shortly," said Kivalina school principal Zoe Theoharis.


Each year the village must pump water from the Wulik River into a holding tank before freeze-up to serve the school and washeteria for the coming year.

Even in April, water was running low in Kivalina, according to an Aug. 25 report on the shortage by the schools superintendent. The school was trying to conserve water during the last few weeks of classes, Eck wrote.

In late July, Theoharis told the district there was no more safe water available at the water plant, according to the report. The superintendent said in a phone interview that it's common for water levels to run low toward the end of the year.

So why didn't the village pump water into the holding tank earlier in the summer, such as in July, before the storms?

Eck declined to comment. Janet Mitchell, the city administrator, said the local government had no money available to fill the tanks at the time.

When a Crowley fuel barge arrived in July, carrying fuel necessary for the water plant, no city officials were available to pay for it and the district covered the cost, Eck wrote in his report.

Beginning Aug. 13, an unusual low-pressure system over the Chukchi Sea poured rain on the Northwest Arctic, National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb said. Nearly nine inches of rain fell in the Red Dog Mine area over the following week -- half the rain the area normally sees in an entire year, he said.

Eck said he's never seen anything like it in his 15 years in the region.

"The storms just kept ripping everything up," he said.

In addition to damaging water pipes, the weather also sank a flexible hose used in the pumping process. "One storm has come after another," Eck wrote. "We do not have the manpower or resources to restore water to the community due to the damage caused by the record level of rainfall and continual storms."

The school district ordered classes delayed. Teachers heading for Kivalina were told to stay in Kotzebue and eventually sent to other Northwest Arctic Borough villages as temporary aides.

Eck warned that Kivalina students would suffer if classes did not resume. The high school seniors need a full school year to earn enough credits to graduate, while lower classmen faced the possibility of another year in high school if classes were cut short.


While it's unclear if the state will eventually help pay the bill, help is already on the way.

Maniilaq, the regional health and social service agency, along with the borough and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium are teaming up with the city to begin repairs this week, Matthew Dixon, the consortium's vice president of operations.

Using emergency funds, the health consortium is buying replacement piping, Dixon said.

Once the transmission lines are fixed, water can be pumped into raw storage tanks where it will settle and be cleaned, according to the borough.

"Our own guys will be filling the tanks since they know our system better then anyone else," Mitchell, the city administrator, wrote in an email.

The school district expects the process to be finished and classes to resume by the end of the month.

Though the classrooms are closed, a few members of the high school cross country team have been running on the wet sand on the Chukchi sea coast, training for a race planned for Kiana over the weekend, Theoharis said.

"They can't run in town," she aid. "There are just too many puddles."

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