Power outage throws Kaktovik into deep freeze

Many of the 300 residents are scurrying from one building to another for warmth

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Hotel caretaker Arthur Smith crawled out of two down sleeping bags - good to 40 degrees below zero - to answer the phone Monday at the Waldo Arms Hotel in Kaktovik.

A power outage has forced many of the 300 residents of Kaktovik, on the Arctic Ocean in Alaska's northeast corner, to scurry from one building to another in search of warmth.

"If Hell can freeze over, this is it and it has," Smith said in a telephone interview.

The village's power generation plant quit at about 5 p.m. Sunday during a blizzard in which 70 mph winds drove temperatures to 20-degrees below zero - 60-below counting wind chill.

Many residents sought shelter at the village school, which had its own source of power until that went out too on Sunday night.

"The school started having intermittent problems with the generator because of the blowing snow. About 10 o'clock last night, the generator in the school failed," said Jim Butchart, with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Eight or nine families from the school were moved to the village's heavy equipment maintenance building because it still had power.

However, the power failure led to a freeze-up of all heavy equipment, making it impossible to keep roads passable. Without plowed roads, it's hard to get to the airport, which is 2 or 3 miles from town, said Dennis O. Packer, in the North Slope Borough mayor's office.

The generators that are operational are dependent on fuel tanks that are now running low, Packer said.

"We had a snowball effect, pardon the pun," he said.

Visibility was a quarter-mile or less on Monday.

An Alaska Air National Guard C-130 plane loaded with equipment and repair technicians destined for Kaktovik left Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage on Monday. But in Barrow, about 325 miles west of Kaktovik, the crew was delayed from further travel because of severe storm conditions. Officials planned to try again this morning, said Mike Haller, a spokesman for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Winds were blowing at 50 mph Monday, gusting to 70 mph, he said.

This time of year, Kaktovik gets only about four hours of twilight at midday. To compound the problem, the village airport runway has no lights.

"Kaktovik is so remote by anybody's standards that it is hard to get help to them. There are 300 people there that need help and they need it now. We are doing our best to get through to them," Haller said.

Smith said the winds had not let up. When the blizzard hit, temperatures dropped 60 degrees in 24 hours, he said.

"This is pretty bad. There are a lot of people out here that are at risk," he said.

Butchart said the situation is not life-threatening. But he said concerns are increasing that if power can't be restored soon and the village pipes freeze, it could result in a lot of infrastructure damage.

Kaktovik is the last of seven villages in the North Slope Borough to get modern water and sewer services. The borough is spending more than $300,000 per building to bring modern plumbing to the village.

"Certainly, we don't want to lose that," said Butchart.

When Smith signed on to be the hotel caretaker, he wasn't thinking about a power outage in the dead of winter. Smith is a filmmaker from Elmira, New York, doing a film about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kaktovik is inside the refuge.

"You can't do anything," Smith said. "It takes every ounce of energy you have to take each step. It is frightening actually."

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