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Eroding Alaska village stays afloat as school finally gets under way

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment photo

The start of the week may have brought mediocre weather for the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina, but the halls of McQueen school were all smiles as students headed back to class after a five-week delay to the school year.

Though city officials are still working to fill the city’s water tanks, the start of classes means they’ve made enough progress to get clean water to the school.

This week they were waiting for the arrival of a high-powered pump that will allow them to move 120 gallons per minute, which prevents icing in the lines. The pump was scheduled to arrive from Maniilaq on Tuesday, said City Administrator Janet Mitchell, and she was eager to expedite the slow process before cold weather hit.

“We don’t have much of an opportunity to fill the tanks now once it starts to freeze up,” Mitchell said. “The Homeland (Security) guys said we may have till the end of this month.”

Monday brought a windstorm and brief snow flurries, a reminder of cool weather to come. It also brought in a very high tide, Mitchell said.

“Our water is rising as we speak, and is overtopping the land across the lagoon where the cement block that held the hose down is located but the town is fine so far,” she said.

Mitchell explained the need for a quicker pumping process, wary of a domino effect should progress slow, or stop, preventing them from fi lling the tanks. First the school, then the clinic and entire community, along with anyone wishing to visit or work in Kivalina, will all be affected.

“The school may not have enough water to remain in compliance with State standards of operations for a public entity thereby possibly affecting operations of the school if we run out,” Mitchell said, describing what could happen if they aren’t back on a regular supply schedule.

“When the tanks are full, we normally close it to the public in February to accommodate the school so they can remain in operation, and that’s when both tanks are fi lled to capacity.”

So while kids are fi ling back into classrooms, and the water tanks are slowly climbing toward capacity, Mitchell and other city offi cials won’t rest easy quite yet. “Just because we have water doesn’t mean
we’re out of emergency mode,” Mitchell said.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch@reportlalaska.com.