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Storm leaves trail of damage in western Alaska coastal villages

Zaz Hollander,Devin Kelly
Jimmy Okitkun

A storm that battered western Alaska over the weekend destroyed water lines in Kotlik and Unalakleet and left a trail of damage along the Bering Sea coast.

Kotlik, a community of about 600 people in the Yukon River Delta, took the brunt of the storm's blow. A rushing surge of seawater and ice destroyed the village's sewer and water distribution lines and damaged at least five homes, state emergency officials said.

The storm also broke a five-mile-long water supply pipe in Unalakleet, officials said. Elsewhere, a Stebbins resident reported flooding around numerous homes as well as damage to a road across from the school. Damage was also reported in other villages, including Shaktoolik and Golovin.

No one was reported injured, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Water and floes of ice began rushing into William Odinzoff's Kotlik home Saturday night. It happened so quickly that the flooding stranded him and six other members of his family. By the time a rescue boat arrived hours later, about 10 inches of water had pooled inside, Odinzoff said.

Odinzoff and his family spent the next two nights at Kotlik School, which served as the village evacuation center. More than 200 people stayed at the school Sunday night, said Principal David Harris.

Most left on Monday, but some elderly villagers remained, in classrooms where beds had been fashioned out of velcro pads ripped from gym walls, Harris said. The school has been shut down until at least Wednesday.

The floodwaters shifted the school's outdoor concrete basketball court 500 yards -- it now sits intact behind the village post office.

Recovery efforts focused on clearing large ice chunks from the village's main boardwalk, which is also the main transportation corridor to the local airstrip. Initial damage estimates were between $500,000 to a million dollars, said the village mayor, Thomas Sinka.

Kotlik's piped vacuum sewer and circulating water utility corridor -- known in village Alaska as the utilidor -- were both badly damaged by the storm. The flood surge pushed back the utilidor, breaking it in half up against the boardwalk, and also tore water and sewer lines from individual homes, said Jimmy Okitkun, pastor at the Kotlik Assembly of God church.

Meanwhile, officials said Kotlik's fresh water supply is expected to run out in five days. For now, people in the village will use honeybuckets, the five-gallon pails used for toilets and dumped at community disposal sites -- a sanitary and health risk that's the reason communities like Kotlik switched to a community sewer system.

A state emergency division spokesman said the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. is sending someone to Kotlik with a water purification device the community can use while the water plant is down. Village leaders are also attempting to organize bottled water donations.

Odinzoff, who came to Kotlik in 1969, said the damage is the worst he's ever seen. Mud now cakes the floor of his house, where his family returned Monday to try to clean up the debris. He also lost a freezer full of food.

With the National Weather Service predicting a second storm moving in, Odinzoff was preparing Monday evening to return his family to the school evacuation center.

"We're getting all our blankets and sleeping bags ready, getting ready for the next emergency," he said.

He added: "We'll be coming back to a broken home."

Kotlik is located in the Yukon River Delta on the east bank of the Kotlik Slough, 165 miles northwest of Bethel and 460 miles from Anchorage. State officials said the storm affected communities up and down the coast, but the heaviest damage centered on a 200-mile stretch between Scammon Bay and Unalakleet.

Up the coast, in Unalakleet, city officials were working Monday on a temporary repair to a coast-hugging pipe that carries raw water to the community for treatment, according to City Manager Scott Dickens.

The storm generated a 12- to 14-foot surge that destroyed several hundred feet of the pipe and a section of nearby road in an erosion-prone area, Dickens said.

The city hopes to replace the broken section of pipe with a permanent, buried section though the pending storm could complicate that work.

"The next storm coming doesn't sound like it's going to be as bad," Dickens said. "From the west, it fights the current so we don't get a big surge like we do with the southerlies, they follow the current."

The storm also temporarily closed the airport runways in Unalakleet, according to Donna Erickson, station manager at Bering Air.

Erickson's garage filled with two to three feet of water. Her family shut off their power for a day. The seawater inundated their camping supplies and "all my husband's power tools," she said. "He's trying to save some. He's really trying to get the saltwater out. He lost a lot of stuff in the garage. Everything was floating."

In Stebbins, flooding moved homes around and damaged outbuildings including smoke houses, according to Charlotte Coffey, a cashier at the Stebbins Native Store. Some Internet connections were down.

Numerous other villages reported at least minor damage, state emergency officials said.

Some communities also got hit with heavy snow. A trooper in Kotzebue said winter conditions Monday morning meant they couldn't get out to survey potential damage.

Unseasonably warm fall temperatures have left the coast without the armor of solid sea ice that protects it from storms, a scenario that also occurred in with the "epic" November 2011 storm that hammered comunities from Point Lay to Newtok, Zidek said.

It was 37 degrees in Unalakleet just a few days ago, Dickens said.

"The ocean never froze up," he said. "if it's frozen or slushy, that helps a lot."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com and Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER and DEVIN KELLY
Anchorage Daily News