Rural Alaska

In the midst of the storm, a dash to keep the power on in Hooper Bay

Hooper Bay Western Alaska storm flood

This story originally appeared at KYUK and is republished here with permission.

HOOPER BAY - Signs of the flood are everywhere. A steel culvert rests on top of a building that was pushed off its frame. Fishing boats sit stranded on the tundra. Seaweed and debris hang shoulder high off fences in the middle of town.

Parts of Hooper Bay were without power for about 36 hours over the weekend as a storm surge flooded the coastal community of about 1,300 people. But the situation could have been far worse – and threatened the town’s winter subsistence stock – if not for the work of two local power plant operators.

On Sept. 20 at the airstrip, cousins Leemon Andrew and Leemon Bunyan were working to restore power to the runway lights.

Andrew, the older of the two, said things are still in a much better shape than they were just a few days ago.

“Everybody’s happy that they have power,” Andrew said.

Andrew, born and raised in Hooper Bay, said he had never seen anything like the flooding that rocked the village over the weekend. As an Alaska Village Electrical Cooperative power plant operator, he certainly hadn’t experienced anything like it. He only just started in April. His cousin has been working as a plant operator for only three weeks. Both cousins are in their early 30s.

“Everything’s new to me,” Andrew said. “But we nearly had a power outage throughout the whole town.”

[Dunleavy requests federal disaster aid for Western Alaska as reports of storm damage accumulate]

The past few days have been about as intense an initiation into the job as anyone could imagine.

When the water started to rise up to the bulk fuel tanks and the power plant on Friday night, Andrew and Bunyan were there with an AVEC contractor.

Soon, some of the empty bulk fuel tanks started to lift and tilt. One toppled, causing the gaskets of the fuel lines to rupture. Those lines bring fuel from the bulk tanks to a smaller tank that powers the generator, which in turn powers the whole town. Now that power was close to shutting off completely.

[Essential pieces of life in Nome were lost in the storm]

They needed to figure out a solution.

“We had a bucket brigade going to fill up the day tank so the generator wouldn’t run out of fuel,” Andrew said. “After the flood in the morning, the day tank was getting low.”

Without a functioning fuel line, Andrew, Bunyan and the AVEC contractor became a human fuel line. As the water rose up toward their waists and debris floating around them, they started carrying bucket after bucket of fuel to the day tank.

If the generator shut down, the whole town would lose power. Everyone’s freezers are filled with moose meat and fish for the winter. Without power, Andrew said, the freezers risked thawing and spoiling all the food inside. It was more than electricity - it was a matter of food security.

[Here are some ways to help communities ravaged by storms in Western Alaska]

As the team worked, Robert Lohman, the AVEC contractor, kept an eye on the rising waters pummeling the bulk fuel tanks. With the water around his waist, he started unlocking the gates farther up the hill, creating an escape route for the crew in case they needed to abandon the plant.

I asked Lohman if he was worried for his life.

“No,” Lohman said. “I’m old.”

Ultimately, the waters were low enough that they did not have to flee. Eventually, the group came up with a workaround for the bucket brigade. They ran a garden hose from the valve at the bottom of the tank to a pump, then ran another garden hose from that pump to the tank feeding the town’s generator. That, currently, is still the solution that is powering the village.

AVEC leadership was visiting the power plant Wednesday to look for a more permanent solution.