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Global artists collective visits Kivalina as Parnell declares flooding disaster

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

EDITOR'S NOTE: Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell on Friday issued a disaster declaration for the Western Alaska village of Kivalina. Disaster recovery funds will be steered to the community by the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

As Kivalina continues to deal with the aftermath of flood damage, the community has managed to stay in potable water through a variety of donations.

“We’ve had some water from the borough,” said city administrator Janet Mitchell. “Statoil, NANA, and now (Red Dog Mine) has found out a way to get water here, but the ocean has to be calm.”

The mine had initially collected potable water in a 500-gallon tank last week, available for residents to retrieve water from, but due to high seas residents were not able to get to the site to fill their jugs.

Over the weekend, mine officials were able to load the tank into a boat and bring it to Kivalina. They made several trips over the long weekend, but when the marine weather kicked up again, more trips were postponed.

“What they had planned on doing was starting to fill our tank so school can start,” Mitchell said, “but with the weather getting bad again I don’t know how far that will go.”

Until the tank is filled, one way or another, the start of the school year continues to be on hiatus in Kivalina.

“I’m sure a lot of parents and a lot of the students would like to go to school, because they always really look forward to it,” Mitchell said. “For it not to happen, I think they’re a little bit antsy.”

Kivalina teachers have not been flown in from Kotzebue yet, awaiting the go ahead to start the school year. In the mean time, Mitchell said, the nine waiting educators have been farmed out to neighboring schools, lending a hand as other classrooms fill for fall term.

As of Tuesday, Mitchell was expecting the equipment delivery needed to repair the water pipe damaged in the flood.

“Supposedly (they) will be flying in the equipment needed to begin pumping,” Mitchell said. “Which is the pipe and the high powered diesel pump.”

The plan as of press time was to begin pumping on Wednesday, and if that went well give the school the ok to open this week.

But that does not mean school can start, said Northwest Arctic School District Superintendent Norman Eck.

“As soon as we have safe running water we are going to then bring our teachers back up,” Eck said. “The teachers have to move back into their housing, we then have to do a final cleaning inside the school, and then they have to set up their classrooms.”

This process, even if things go well with getting the pipe and pump back online, could put Kivalina students up to a month behind other district kids. That lost time, Eck said, will have to be made up throughout the year, and they’ll be meeting with parents and teachers to decide how best to do that.

“We’re just anxious to get school going,” Eck said.

Lagoon breaches landfill

As borough, city and state officials met over the last week to discuss Kivalina’s disaster declaration, one of the issues brought up was the condition of the garbage dump.

During the flood two weeks ago, the lagoon breached the Kivalina landfill. This is an ongoing concern, Mitchell said, one she’s been working on for years.

“It’s always going to be a concern because it’s still in the same condition,” Mitchell said.

“There’s still no fence around it and if there’s another flood it’s going to affect the landfill again.”

Mitchell has applied for different grants over the years, but hasn’t yet found the funding to properly protect the landfill.

“We’d like to get some funding to do upgrades,” Mitchell said. “The EPA, (this is) always their first concern, but if that is so, shouldn’t things be done to have it upgraded so that it isn’t a threat to the environment anymore? And we know, we as a council, as a governing body, we should be trying to have that addressed.”

Despite a water disaster and the unexpected school delay, a visiting group of artists has actually kept Kivalina youth busy in the last week and a half.

A gathering of artists from all over the world planned their trip to Kivalina half a year ago, as a part of the ReLocate Kivalina project, organized by the Alaska Design Forum.

From their mission statement: “Using social arts methods and online media, ReLocate is building artistic and web-based platforms that intend to make the social, political, and environmental issues related to relocation visible to global audiences; support community discussion and consensus building; locate, connect and educate new relocation partners; create spaces where people in Kivalina can share original media and ideas about local identities and ways of life; and develop an infrastructure for managing global support and pursuing relocation planning opportunities.”

Visitors this last week included social artists from the European group WochenKlausur, and representatives from the California College of the Arts. They were there to produce a local youth storytelling platform online and to observe and document experiences of Kivalina residents.

They of course had no idea the visit would be timed with such a glaring example of erosion and weather damage, Mitchell said, but it was an unforgettable experience for the artists.

“They’re using Kivalina because we’ve been in the media so much,” Mitchell said.

She thought the artist group would have perfect weather and opportunities for them to go berry picking, look at the country, and see what parts are impacted by erosion.

“But it didn’t turn out quite like that,” Mitchell said. “Instead we had a flood and tons of rain and they’re here to see how we operate when we’re hit with a disaster. They just fit right in, they just made do with what's available. And that was pretty admirable."

This article was originally published by The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.