Local Heroes Save Power and Water During Storm

A bucket truck operating at night in the winter.

Right before the new year began, much of Western Alaska experienced unusually mild, stormy weather. While winter storms are par for the course in Nome, freezing rain and slush are unusual in December.

With gale-force winds wracking Nome, much of the city suffered blackouts. (At KNOM, the power was out for nearly an hour.) Despite the conditions, linemen from Nome Joint Utility System (NJUS) worked overnight to get power back to residents where possible. Manager John Handeland, who oversaw operations, explained to listeners that the rain and mild temperatures caused icing on the lines, making them very heavy.

“The lines were just whipping like crazy… We just couldn’t do anything until the wind subsided. It also caused quite a bit of damage to these lines. With the whipping and shaking, the cross arms and some of the braces actually either loosened or were pulled out,” Handeland said.

The power outage persisted into the next day for some households. Even so, Handeland, who is also mayor of Nome, said community members supported the workers’ efforts to restore power to their homes.

After a long night restoring power to Nome, lineman Dave Ojanen is close to falling asleep sitting at his kitchen table. Photo originally shared on Facebook by his wife Ruth (Muktoyuk) Ojanen, shared with permission.

Social media posts about those working to fix the outage gathered hundreds of encouraging comments and responses.

“I’ve passed on many of the messages that come by phone or Facebook to the crew. When they get some of those encouraging things, they said they’re even wanting to work harder to get out and get things back for folks,” Mayor Handeland said.

Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the weather was unusual, with December 2021 setting records for the greatest amount of precipitation in a December month.

Despite plenty of water pouring from the sky, the village of Unalakleet faced a water shortage due to the storm. After the storm caused a freeze-up that jeopardized the village’s water supply, residents pulled together to ration water.
Unalakleet City Manager Moe Zamarron said the rain created a frozen pool that shifted the water pump house, impeding the water flow feeding the tank. Levels were down to two feet, or about 7% of its total capacity.

“It took a lot of effort from the local community to conserve,” explained Zamarron. “Through their efforts, we were able to reserve enough of our storage tank water to make it through this. And it was a community effort for everybody to pull together.”

Although water is now back in the tank, the repairs are ongoing. For years, Unalakleet has struggled with near annual shortages, contamination issues or freezing pipes at the water tank.

However, better times may be ahead, as the community is building redundancy to reduce future water system failures. A grant awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, gave the Native Village of Unalakleet more than $650,000 to develop a water haul system. According to HUD, this newer system will provide the community more access to treated, potable water, without having to rely solely on the current system.

Residents shared that in the meantime, as is normal during tough times, community members came together to conserve water, share their subsistence foods and support each other.

Image at top: Crews worked through the night to restore power to homes in Nome during the New Year’s storm. Photo by John Handeland, shared with permission.