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Rural Alaska

Southwest Alaska villages rebuild after windstorm

  • Author: Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK
  • Updated: December 28, 2017
  • Published December 28, 2017

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)

BETHEL — The Southwest Alaska villages of Quinhagak and Platinum are working to rebuild after winds tore along the coast of Kuskokwim Bay in the days before Christmas. The 85-mph winds howled from the southeast Dec. 21 and 22, ripping apart buildings but leaving the towns' Christmas spirit untouched.

In Quinhagak, residents were searching the tundra to collect belongings and pieces of their houses that were lost in the storm.

"Homeowners' porches were blown open and little houses were torn up, like smokehouses, and most of the roofings were blown off," said George Johnson, the Native Village of Quinhagak's public works director.

The wind flipped boats, destroying motors. It shattered windows in the tribal office and village health clinic, and it slung a partially constructed house across the road. It just slid on the ice, Johnson said, and they went out and slid it back.

"We used a bulldozer, a loader, to drag it across the road," Johnson said, and a team lifted the house back on its pilings.

The wind also flipped a 16-by-20-foot fuel warehouse with an employee inside; he came out OK. The damage broke a fuel line, disabling the village's fuel pumps. Workers have rigged a manual system and are limiting gas to 10 gallons per person and stove oil to 5 gallons per person until the problem is fixed.

Quinhagak lost power to half the town for a day, but it was restored Saturday evening.

"Strange. This weather is getting strange," Johnson said. He is 65 years old and says that the last time he remembers winds of this magnitude was in the 1970s. And he's never seen a December this warm.

"It's not even winter yet," Johnson said, explaining that the river had frozen a mere four inches before the storm blew away the ice and all the snow. But on Sunday night that last part changed. About an inch of snow fell, and Quinhagak woke up to a white Christmas.

The effect of the storm on the community's already-crumbling coastline is unknown. The tribe's natural resource director plans to measure the effects on Thursday.

Farther down the coast, Platinum also sustained damage. Tribal administrator Lou Adams says that at least two fuel tanks were ripped from houses during the storm, strips of roofing were lost, and boats were flipped.

Two power lines were also damaged, leaving the post office with no power and homes with partial power. Adams says that most of her home has remained without electricity: "My porch and all my outlets, my boiler, my hot water maker, my bathroom, my hall."

Work to restore Platinum's power began on Wednesday. According to Platinum power plant operator Mark Moyle, Wednesday was the first day that the wind had dropped enough to climb an electric pole since the storm.

Despite the storm damage, Christmas in both villages continued as usual.

Lights were shining in both Moravian churches, where residents gathered to sing carols, read Bible verses and exchange gifts.

In Quinhagak, residents traveled from house to house trading bowls of treats: candy and akutaq, a mixture of oil, fish and sugar with berries. At least 20 people treated George Johnson's family.

He says that they brought "salmonberries, blueberries, red berries, greens from along the beach, excellent akutaq."

City administrator Karin Evans in Goodnews Bay says that driving on the roads there felt dangerous during the storm, but no damage occurred.

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