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Rural Alaska

High winds knock out power, damage buildings in Kuskokwim Bay

  • Author: Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK
  • Updated: December 25, 2017
  • Published December 25, 2017

Winds blew over the Quinhagak fuel storage warehouse with an employee inside on Dec. 22, 2017. (Derek Kusiak via KYUK)

BETHEL — Winds of up to 85 mph ripped up the Kuskokwim Bay coast on Friday, upending smokehouses, tearing electric lines and flinging a house across the road.

In Quinhagak, half the town was without power for a day; fuel pumps were damaged and gas and stove oil were being rationed. Platinum sustained minor damage and KYUK could not connect to landlines in Goodnews Bay as of Sunday.

Mike Smith woke up at 9 a.m. on Friday in Quinhagak; the house was shaking. As the sun rose, he said, he looked out his window to see "strong winds, plywood flying all around, roofing flying around, cars and Hondas sliding off the road, smokehouses being blown apart."

On Smith's property, only his shed sustained damage. The wind tore off sections of tin roofing and wood siding.

Strong winds knocked a partially constructed house off its foundation and sent it skating across an icy road in Quinhagak on Dec. 22, 2017. (Derek Kusiak via KYUK)

In another area of town the wind wiped a house off its foundation, sending it skating across the ice. Smith said that the building "slid across the road, nearly hitting another house, missing it by only a few inches."

Luckily, no one was inside. The house is partially constructed, and its owners haven't moved in yet.

"This is the worst wind I've ever seen since I've been here, [in] all my life. I'm sixty and a half," said John Hunter, Quinhagak fuel system and hardware store manager.

On Friday morning, at the storm's peak, Hunter was talking on the phone with an employee who was in the shed next to the village's fuel pumps.

"First he said the building started to shake really bad and it was going to come off," said Hunter. "Then I just heard a wind sound after that."

The sound was the 16-by-20-foot shed tumbling over with the employee inside. Hunter dispatched a maintenance worker to the site, who shattered the shed's back window to free the trapped employee.

"He [the maintenance worker] picked him up and he wasn't hurt bad," said Hunter. "I had him go to the clinic and get checked up, but he was okay."

A pipe connecting the fuel tanks to the gas pumps was also damaged, disabling the pumps, but no fuel was spilled. Hunter and his workers rigged a manual pump to access emergency fuel. They're limiting gasoline to five gallons per person and stove oil to 10 gallons per person until the problem is fixed.

"As soon as these winds die down we're going back out there to work on it," Hunter said.

Hunter had to end his interview with KYUK to fix the village store's generator. As of Saturday evening, the south end of the town had been without power for a day. Hunter said that a damaged line near the school was shut down after it started sparking.

As of 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC) CEO Meera Kohler emailed KYUK saying that she'd just gotten word that a lineman had landed in Quinhagak to deal with the issue. In a later email, Kohler said that the power had been restored at 8:30 p.m.

Neither Smith nor Hunter could say whether the storm had caused erosion on Quinhagak's already crumbing shoreline. Smith said that the road was too icy and winds too strong to drive his four-wheeler to the beach.

Throughout the storm, the wind blew from the southeast. Hunter said that it's unlikely that a wind from that direction would have surged the ocean.

The coastal village of Platinum also sustained damage during Friday's storm.

"All the houses were rocking and rolling throughout the night," said Daniel Adams, office assistant at the Platinum tribal office. "We had a couple dishes in the kitchen fall over."

Adams also said that some houses are without power or have partial power. In his own home, Adams said that lights in only certain rooms are working. His aunt's house lost most of her roofing, but Adams was unfazed by what he saw.

"It's normal for us," he said. "Being out in Platinum, we're used to high winds."

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