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Western Alaska flooding: Utilities, homes damaged in several communities

Megan Edge
Damage from flooding that occurred during a winter storm in November 2013.
Mike Joseph photo
Ice buildup from coastal flooding in the Western Alaska community of Kotlik. Nov. 11, 2013
Patricia Okitkun photo
Ice buildup from flooding in the community of Kotlik. Nov. 11, 2013.
Patricia Okitkun photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo

Sudden flooding and severe ice jams in the village of Kotlik -- a coastal Yukon River Delta town of about 630 people south of Norton Sound -- damaged sewage systems, closed the community's school, displaced families and cut off the community’s access to any running water over the weekend. And the village is bracing for another wave of nasty winter weather expected to bring more flooding.

Other communities in the region, from Scammon Bay to Unalakleet, also suffered damage as a result of severe weather that accompanied a Bering Sea storm sweeping through the area late last week.

"The town was actually a part of the ocean," Kotlik Mayor Thomas Sinka said Monday. "I mean everything was underwater, and our rescue teams were trying to get to all of these people, but the flooding happened so fast we just couldn't."

He added that sea ice was pushed into the town and surrounding rivers, making it more challenging to perform search and rescue operations.

Sinka said the water from Pastol Bay came rushing into the Yup’ik village on Saturday. He said more than 100 people, families and their pets headed to the local school for shelter.

Although the worst seems to be over, Sinka said, it has left the town with immense damage.

He said the townspeople are just now able to survey the damage, but the list of needed repairs is already long. Damage at the fueling station caused diesel to spill into the village, he said. Sewage pipes floated away and the sewage water was in the streets. The playground equipment at the school was taken away with the current, and the school had no heat or running water. People have lost their homes. And multiple people posted on the Kotlik Facebook page claiming that much of the Alaska Native subsistence food that was hunted and gathered over the summer has been destroyed.

Alaska Department of Homeland Security spokesman Jeremy Zidek confirmed that the community’s water system had been knocked out and the water plant damaged.

“They have about 2 weeks of water within their water tanks,” Zidek said. “It can’t be distributed (by the system), but they can haul it.” He added that Kotlik would have to resort to using honeybuckets for their sewage needs, at least for the time being.

No Homeland Security officials were on scene Monday, but the agency was monitoring the still-developing situation. Sinka said Monday evening that the community had been talking with a number of state and federal agencies, including FEMA.

Bethel residents have been trickling to the town to help out, said Sinka, but fixing a majority of the damage will be challenging because of the ice jams that built up throughout the community. The village of Kotlik will meet Monday afternoon to further discuss the amount of damage.

Sinka said the two things they need most right now is fresh water, and honey buckets to help while the sewage system remains offline.

"It is just heartbreaking to see this happening," said Sinka. "But we are lucky no one was hurt."

Meanwhile, other communities have also seen damage from the storm. Zidek said that coastal erosion had been reported in Golovin and Shaktoolik. Unalakleet, meanwhile, was in much the same state as Kotlik, with the main water line offline, and about two weeks of water available in that coastal community of about 700.

Despite the damage, the communities had mostly weathered the flooding relatively well, Zidek said.

The power is on, and we’ve been in communication with (the affected communities),” Zidek said. “We haven’t had any critical requests for life safety needs, medical emergencies, communications, or power at this time.”

Planning ahead

But more storms appear to be on the way. The National Weather Service reported Monday that rough weather was expected to continue for much of the week.

“A series of storms developing over the Bering and Chukchi Seas will sweep across Northern Alaska Tuesday night through Thursday. Although there is some uncertainty in the forecast details ... another round of stormy weather is likely across much of Western Alaska,” the NWS wrote.

The storm systems were expected to bring high winds that could cause more coastal flooding, the agency reported.

Sinka reported Monday evening that the community had been able to clear its runway and a boardwalk, enabling people to move around in the ice-clogged village. He said they were focused on getting some people who live across the river from Kotlik onto the other side and into the main community, where they might be better able to ride out the upcoming bout of bad weather. 

Kotlik held a town meeting on Monday, and some people were surprised to find out that there could be more flooding on the way. Sinka said that some people only had VHF radio and hadn't heard about the new storm systems headed toward Western Alaska. He said that the recent flooding will hopefully make the community better prepared for such an event in the future. A new warning system was discussed at Monday's meeting.

"We talked about a siren for the whole community, like if there’s a storm warning, there’d be a siren we could set off," Sinka said.

Such a plan is for the future. For now, the community will likely have to hunker down as best it can until the next storm passes -- and then begin to rebuild.

Ben Anderson contributed to this report. Contact Megan Edge at megan(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @MegTEdge.