Relief efforts mobilize in Western Alaska villages as new storm approaches

Devin Kelly

Relief operations are mobilizing in the western coastal village of Kotlik, as several hundred people were sheltering in the local school Wednesday to evade forecasted floodwaters.

More than 250 people, or nearly half the village, fled low-lying homes for the school's higher ground. A powerful storm that hit the village Saturday night caused flood and ice damage in at least 15 residences.

David Harris, the principal, described a fearful atmosphere among those sheltering.

"They're extremely on edge," he said. "There's a lot of anxiety."

The evacuees have been staying in classrooms and other school facilities since Tuesday night. Wednesday afternoon, people gathered in the gymnasium to hear a Catholic mass from a local priest.

The National Weather Service has issued a coastal flood warning for the Eastern Norton Sound region from 9 p.m. Wednesday night through Thursday. The bad weather has affected communities up and down the Yukon River Delta Region, and three villages Kotlik, Unalakleet and Stebbins -- are expected to send disaster declarations to the state.

The entire community of Stebbins evacuated Wednesday to the local school and tribal council building, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Neither the school nor the council could be reached for comment.

While warily watching weather forecasts, agencies such as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium have begun dispatching aid workers to Kotlik. A charter plane flew to Kotlik just after 3 p.m. Tuesday, ferrying a YKHC remote maintenance worker, environmental health officer and aid supervisor to the village to support clinic staff and give out immunizations.

The plane also carried supplies, including bottled water, disinfectants, water system equipment and vaccines and immunizations, said Donna Bach, spokeswoman for the YKHC. On Thursday, the American Red Cross of Alaska is planning to send two disaster workers to Kotlik, along with blankets, water and other relief items.

A state emergency specialist, meanwhile, arrived in Unalakleet Wednesday to aid in response efforts, Zidek said.

Operators with the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative, an agency that helps manage rural Alaska water and sewer systems, are also working to repair the city's damaged sewer and water lines. The weekend storm smashed into the vulnerable above-ground water piping system that services the village. So far, sending in additional help has been hampered by bad weather that is grounding planes.

Winter, in general, will pose a broader challenge for recovery.

"We have never had a coastal flooding situation like this where the water has come up in the winter months," Bach said. "That's the other scary predicament."

It's more difficult for crews to work outside in winter. High water and ice have rendered the damaged village well pump inaccessible. In addition, equipment has to be pre-heated to proper temperatures - a challenging and time-intensive task in icy conditions, said Chris Mercer, operations manager for the collaborative.

Also, with winter closing in, fewer resources are available than when flooding occurs in coastal villages in the spring.

Public health concerns accompany the water shortage and evacuations. Already high rates of respiratory illness and infection disease, such as the flu, could spike with overcrowding and limited access to water, Bach said.

"Getting the flu vaccine is the number one priority," Bach said. "Otherwise it becomes a nightmare for everyone."

Kotlik school had running water and sewage from about 4 p.m. Tuesday to 11 a..m. Wednesday, allowing people to flush toilets and take showers, Harris said. But the system has been shut off in the face of the flood warning, and the school's waste capacity at the school was filling up Wednesday afternoon.

It's unclear at this point when the sewage and water systems will be fully operational for the entire village.

"If it doesn't happen, it's basically going to be honey buckets and carrying and packing water for those 65 houses through the winter," Bach said.

Close to the minds of villagers, too, is subsistence food. Some reported losing entire freezers of food stored for the winter.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.