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Kivalina attempts to contain storm panic

Alex DeMarban
Peter Law photo

Officials in the Northwest Alaska community of Kivalina, trying to dispel fears among villagers as a massive storm bears down on the region, said the city is preparing the school for use as a long-term shelter.

There are no plans to evacuate the village as happened in 2007, said city administrator Janet Mitchell late Tuesday morning.

"The people are almost in panic mode and I'm trying to alleviate that," Mitchell said.

On short-wave radio, Facebook and the city's website, she plans to let the 300-plus residents know that Kivalina will be ready when the meteorological monster makes landfall Tuesday night.

The world knows the Inupiat community, clinging to an 8-mile barrier island northwest of Kotzebue, as a poster town for global warming. Fall storms in recent years have swiped away swaths of shoreline that in colder times would have been armored with wave-dampening sea ice.

         City officials: 'Just don't panic'

The community received special mention in warnings from the National Weather Service that called the tempest life-threatening and compared it to a blast in November 1974 that hammered the coast. It will have a "severe impact" on Kivalina, the weather service warned.

Then, however, the village had its sea-ice protection. Not so today, a reality that's heightened tensions in town.

But Mitchell said the city expects to be safe. The storm is projected to boost seas as much as 8-feet higher than normal. But a coastline rock-revetment constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rises 13-feet above sea level and protects essential infrastructure, such as the tank farm, power plant and village school. 

Waters could still flood the village. In that case, the city's planning to keep the school, which sits 19 feet above sea level, open through the night, she said. The facility has withstood 100 mph winds, and weather forecasters say this latest storm will bring 75 mph winds with 100 mph gusts.

Boats have been moved to the school in case people need rescuing. The clinic's creating little aid kits that will be available for refugees. And workers are attaching a bucket to a front-end loader to pluck flood victims from their houses and deposit them safely at the school.  

"It's the tallest piece of heavy equipment that can go through the water and still be operable," Mitchell said.

Preparations are also being made to open the school's substantial pantry to the village if they have to stay a while, and the power company is reviewing its system to make sure everything is operable.

"Our biggest concern is the electricity," said Colleen Swan, a council woman trained in emergency response. "If we ever lost our power, the majority of community would be without heat."

More than 100 residents fled the village in the face of an approaching storm in 2007, with residents finding shelter in Kotzebue and Red Dog Mine. Some even boated to fishing camps located on the mainland. That was before the current rock revetment was built. 

As Mitchell spoke with a reporter from the Alaska Dispatch, Josesph Swan Sr., a member of the local elders council, squawked a warning over the short-wave radio.

"He's reminding boat owners to put up their boats (on high ground) if they're by the beach," Mitchell said. "He expects overflow in the lagoon. If they don't pull them up, they'll freeze and stick to the ground." 

During a preparedness meeting with the Northwest Arctic Borough earlier today, Joseph Swan recalled a storm in the late 1940s that didn't lead to flooding. Sea ice coated the shore then, so there's a possibility some flooding will occur this time, he said, according to Mitchell.

"It's good to be prepared, just don't panic," he cautioned. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com