Reeling coastal villages prepare for another storm

Devin Kelly

Storm-weary coastal communities in western Alaska, still reeling from a damaging weekend storm, were girding for a fresh round of harsh weather Tuesday.

A National Weather Service warning forecast high winds and freezing rain in the Yukon River Delta region through Wednesday. The oncoming storm was not predicted to be as powerful as the one that barreled into the area Saturday night, flooding buildings and destroying water pipelines in Kotlik and Unalakleet.

But with the possibility of more flooding, communities were tensing in preparation.

"It's probably going to increase the damage level," said Michael Kutz, a hydrometeorological technician with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. "There's no way of ducking that."

The oncoming storm has forced state assessment measures into a holding pattern. State emergency officials are waiting until the weather passes before fully evaluating the level of damage, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

To aid in the immediate response, an emergency management specialist being dispatched to Unalakleet is scheduled to arrive on a commercial plane by Wednesday, Zidek said. The specialist will set up a base in Unalakleet before chartering a plane to Kotlik, Zidek said.

Kotlik, a community of about 600 people that saw more than a dozen homes damaged in the weekend flooding, has already sent a disaster declaration to the state. Officials were working with Unalakleet and Stebbins on their own declarations, Zidek said.

On Tuesday, light snow and rain fell in Kotlik as residents continued to work on the village's badly damaged piped vacuum sewer line, and bought bottled water from local stores. The storm wreaked havoc on water distribution lines, and local officials warned Monday that the village water tank only carried enough fresh water for five days.

The state is planning to fly in a water purification system to help solve the water supply problem. For now, villagers are being asked to sharply conserve water use by limiting showers and dish-washing.

Television producer Jeanie Green, the creator of the show "Heartbeat Alaska," arranged for 12 turkeys to be donated to the Kotlik School, which is serving as the village evacuation center. She said it was meant to be "food for the soul."

"It's a message from me and others that we haven't forgotten you, and we're worried," Green said.

The turkeys already sit in the school's freezer, Principal David Harris said. He said he is planning to serve up the meat to villagers expected to fill the evacuation center when the new storm hits.

About 100 miles up the coast, in Unalakleet, crews were scrambling Tuesday to repair several hundred feet of damaged water piping before the next round of bad weather. A temporary line was installed early Monday morning. While water has continued to flow, the collapse of pipeline accentuated long-standing concerns about erosion, said city administrator Scott Dickens.

As weather conditions threatened to hamper relief efforts, local officials voiced the concern that the road to recovery may be a protracted one.

"I don't feel my life is in danger, but it's going to be very uncomfortable for some months to come," said Harris, the principal in Kotlik.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.