Broken pipes, flooding follow freeze in Kaktovik

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2005

ANCHORAGE - After days of subzero temperatures with no heat, the Arctic village of Kaktovik faced a new problem Thursday: broken water pipes and flooding.

About 90 percent of buildings and homes in the 300-person village had power Thursday. But as emergency crews and electricians worked on repairing downed electrical lines and zapped generators, a new problem became evident - leaks in the water system.

"We know there are some leaks in the system. It is just a matter of going through and locating those and assessing how bad they are," said Dennis Packer, chief administrative officer for the North Slope Borough, which helps administer village services.

One indication the system is in trouble is water on village roads, probably coming from the public water system, Packer said.

Plumbers and electricians spent the night assessing damage to both the electrical and the sewer system.

Packer said there is one bright spot.

"It looks like our sewer plant made it through the storm in relatively good condition mainly because the generator was able to retain heat through the building," he said.

A delivery truck was being readied Thursday to deliver drinking water to homes.

The broken water pipe problem was anticipated. One of three Alaska Air National Guard C-130 cargo planes that carried much needed items to the village Wednesday also carried plastic buckets - also referred to in Bush Alaska as "honey buckets" for the collection and disposal of human waste.

Kaktovik, an Inupiat Eskimo village, is about 250 miles north of Arctic Circle and inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the last villages on the North Slope to get modern water and sewer services. The North Slope Borough is spending more than $300,000 per building to bring modern water and sewer services to the village.

More than half the homes are now connected to the system, Packer said.

He said it was too early to know when the water and sewer system would be fixed or the costs of repair. The borough is working with the state to assess the damage to public facilities.

After sputtering for a day or two, Kaktovik's power plant failed completely on Sunday, when a blizzard drove temperatures to 20 degrees below zero, 60-below with wind chill.

Lifelong Kaktovik resident Fenton Rexford said the storm was the worst he's seen in his 53 years.

"I've seen some bad storms but this one without power was pretty hard for senior citizens, the elders," he said. "We were just kind of wondering how our ancestors did it. They didn't have electricity. They didn't have running water. Thanks to our ancestors we have learned how from them to survive."

Packer said no one died or was injured in the storm.

Fenton propped a thermometer on top of his refrigerator. He said it got down to 40 degrees. Fortunately, his water pipes run along the ceiling and did not freeze. His home had no power from Saturday to about noon Wednesday.

Two technicians who were delivered to the village Tuesday night by helicopter managed to get the power up and running.

By Thursday, many of the 100 residents who sought warmth in the heavy equipment maintenance building after heat in the school quit Sunday night had returned to their homes.

Cargo planes delivered much-needed supplies Wednesday, including ready-to-eat meals, water, diapers and infant formula. Plumbers, mechanics, electrical linemen and health aides, also made the trip to the village to help out.

Packer said the village runway remains closed to commercial flights because the runway lights are not operational yet. Portable runway lights were set up during the emergency to help the cargo planes get quickly in and out.

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