Rural Alaska

With sewer offline in flood-damaged Kotlik, residents welcome aid in form of honeybuckets

Disaster relief donations typically consist of food, water and fuel, but some 200 honeybuckets -- complete with snap-on toilet seats for added comfort -- arrived in the village of Kotlik on Monday. Flooding and ice blocks nine days earlier shredded the water and sewer system and tossed the Western Alaska village into a pre-plumbing time warp.

"The things we take for granted, we realize after it's gone," said city administrator Lori Mike. "I would love to hear the toilet flush again and see the water come out of the faucet."

She might get her wish Tuesday night, after workers from the regional health care organization flew into the village of 600 to repair the damage.

It's possible they'll fix part of the system quickly, bringing bathroom amenities back to about half the village.

But it could be much longer before the rest of Kotlik is online again. That's because in part of town, ice blocks ripped water and sewer lines off their foundation, strewing them about the village.

"Good luck, maybe this summer," said city councilman Reynold Okitkun, who said he's not expecting running water and flush toilets in his home for a while.

That's no big deal for him -- he grew up without plumbing. But his kids hope things get fixed fast.

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"That's their top priority," he said.

Until then the five-gallon buckets and lids -- donated by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association at more than $4,000 total -- will come in handy.

Many villages around the state still depend entirely on honeybuckets. But plumbing arrived in Kotlik in the mid-1990s, reducing skin illnesses and respiratory diseases, Mike said.

No one wanted a return to those days. But after the flooding, people scrounged up utility buckets that hadn't washed away in the high waters. Some were small and many had no lids, so the honeybucket donation is an important gift.

"Yay," residents said as they came to the city to pick up the items. "Imagine going in buckets without toilet lids."

A dirty job

The return to the old days means villagers are transferring excrement into larger 55-gallon drums or the collection bins that still exist in a small part of town that never got plumbed.

The city worker who empties the bins into a sewage lagoon has scrambled to keep up with the waste. Such workers are often called "anaq men" in Southwest Alaska. "Anaq" means "poop" in Yup'ik.

"He's four times busier than normal," Mike said. "I can't say if he looks happier to get more work. He's not complaining."

Kotlik has largely seen its water needs met. Small planes have delivered thousands of gallons of bottled water thanks to donations from numerous groups, including Coca Cola in Anchorage, Mike said.

And the water system was close to being back in action for part of the town on Tuesday. "They're pumping water out as we speak, so hopefully that will help out with the water supply, and hopefully we'll have enough water," she said.

Villagers are glad for the help they've gotten, including a visit Saturday from Gov. Sean Parnell, who declared a disaster in the region, Mike said.

Other donations in Kotlik include 1,000 pounds of food sent by the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, and a $5,000 gift from Donlin Gold -- the company owned by Novagold Resources and Barrick Gold Corp. that hopes to mine a prospect near the Kuskokwim River.

The money will be used to buy space heaters and fans to dry out homes.

"We're grateful we're getting all the help we can and appreciate everyone who has been donating," Mike said.

The villagers themselves had also been resilient even without the outside help, said Okitkun. Aid didn't arrive for several days after the storm, and local volunteers quickly cleaned up what they could, including some of the battered boardwalks and damaged water and sewer lines.

"They did a good job of pulling together on their own," Okitkun said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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