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Arctic floods recede, damage tallied across Northwest Alaska

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Fields of View / cc via Flickr

As the Northwest Arctic comes out from under the dirge of wet weather the last weeks brought down on them, communities are taking inventory of damage.

The area facing the most serious issue is the village of Kivalina, where a damaged water pipe has cut off the community’s supply of potable water.

Last week’s flooding carried off a section of the pipe, said City Administrator Janet Mitchell, and the city has declared a disaster and postponed the start of school as they work to come up with both a fix-it plan and emergency supplies for the meantime.

“We’re going to need an additional 1,000 feet of pipe,” Mitchell said. City officials held a conference call with the borough, homeland security, the Department of Environmental Control and the state health and human services department on Tuesday to address that issue, and others in the region.

Households were collecting rainwater for immediate use, Mitchell said, but that option is drying up with the weather.

“We’re getting pretty desperate now that it stopped raining,” Mitchell said. “Some people are hurting.”

Other areas are pitching in to help. The Northwest Arctic Borough authorized households with infants, small children and elders to pick up gallon jugs of water from the Kivalina Native Store, which will be billed to the borough, said Wendie Schaeffer, the borough’s deputy director of public services.

Thus far $1,400 has been allocated for that subsidy.

Red Dog Mine has also collected just over 4,000 gallons of potable water to donate to the community, Schaeffer said, but due to unsafe ocean conditions Kivalina residents weren’t able to travel to get to it. She said Red Dog officials are rethinking a plan to get the water to Kivalina.

In a long-distance act of neighborly concern, a church in Minnesota — the pastor of which is a friend of Mitchell’s — has donated $1,000 toward purchasing water for the community. And just around town, Mitchell said, members of the 436-person village have been communicating over the VHF trying to pool resources and reach out to those who might have a back supply.

The local dump was also breached by high water and leached into the lagoon. While that is not a water contamination concern right now, Schaeffer said, that issue was also addressed during the Tuesday teleconference.

In the rest of the region, the high water and the nerves that came with it are subsiding.

In Noatak a disaster was declared due to high water as a precaution, Schaeffer said, but no actions were required following the flood peak.

“The water got really high but they didn’t have any floods,” Schaeffer said. And while the water is still high in the Noatak and Kobuk rivers, it seems they’ve passed the worst of it.

Just outside of Ambler, a bridge that provides access to winter subsistence grounds between Ambler and Kiana suffered a compromised foundation, Schaeffer said, but it remains passable and under close scrutiny for safety issues.

In Kiana, residents were unable to move four Conex containers from the treeline before the storm surge came in. The containers, which had been recently offloaded from a barge, filled half or two-thirds of the way with water, Schaeffer said.

While she didn’t know the exact contents of the containers and what kind of damage they suffered, Schaeffer confirmed that they did not contain hazardous materials. The Kobuk store also took precautions as flood waters approached the door, moving inventory to high shelves. The store, however, remained dry.

And finally, in the city of Kotzebue flood fronts have given up the ground and moved back, with rain subsiding as well. Though it was a wet and soggy week, damage appears to be minimal in the hub city.

“Kotzebue seemed to handle it fine,” said fire chief Silvano Viveiros, “There was a little bit of erosion in a couple places, but as far as I know that’s pretty much all that happened.”

Most of the erosion was on Front Street on parts without the sea wall, Viveiros said. A few boats were also swamped, but most were old boats not in regular use, he said. Emergency departments only received one 911 call, from a person staying at tent city on lower ground. But he stayed the night at the station, Viveiros said, and there were no other reports of people in danger due to the high water.

This article first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is posted here with permission.