Christmas Celebrations Continued As Quinhagak And Platinum Rebuild After High Winds

Dec 28, 2017

Strong winds knocked a partially constructed house off its foundation and sent it skating across an icy road in Quinhagak on December 22, 2017.
Credit Derek Kusiak

The communities of Quinhagak and Platinum are working to rebuild after high winds tore along the coast of Kuskokwim Bay in the days before Christmas. The 85-mile-per-hour winds howled from the Southeast on Thursday and Friday, ripping apart buildings, but leaving the towns’ Christmas spirit untouched.

In Quinhagak, residents are searching the tundra to collect belongings and pieces of their houses that were lost in the storm.

“Homeowners' porches were blown open and little houses were torn up, like smokehouses, and most of the roofings were blown off,” said George Johnson, Native Village of Quinhagak Public Works Director.

The wind flipped boats, destroying motors. It shattered windows in the tribal office and village health clinic, and it slung a partially constructed house across the road. It just slid on the ice, Johnson said, and they went out and slid it back.

“We used a bulldozer, a loader, to drag it across the road,” Johnson said, and a team lifted the house back on its pilings.

The wind also flipped a 16-by-20-foot fuel warehouse with an employee inside; he came out okay. The damage broke a fuel line, disabling the village’s fuel pumps. Workers have rigged a manual system and are limiting gas to 10 gallons per person and stove oil to five gallons per person until the problem is fixed.

Quinhagak lost power to half the town for a day, but it was restored Saturday evening.

“Strange. This weather is getting strange,” Johnson said. He is 65 years old and says that the last time he remembers winds of this magnitude was in the 1970s. And he’s never seen a December this warm.

“It’s not even winter yet,” Johnson said, explaining that the river had frozen a mere four inches before the storm blew away the ice and all the snow. But on Sunday night that last part changed. About an inch of snow fell, and Quinhagak woke up to a white Christmas.

The effect of the storm on the community’s already crumbling coastline is unknown. The tribe’s Natural Resource Director plans to measure the effects on Thursday.

Further down the coast, Platinum also sustained damage. Tribal Administrator Lou Adams says that at least two fuel tanks were ripped from houses during the storm, strips of roofing were lost, and boats were flipped, damaging their steering

Two power lines were also damaged, leaving the post office with no power and homes with partial power. Adams says that most of her home has remained without electricity: “My porch and all my outlets, my boiler, my hot water maker, my bathroom, my hall."

Work to restore Platinum’s power began on Wednesday. According to Platinum Power Plant Operator Mark Moyle, Wednesday was the first day that the wind had dropped enough to climb an electric pole since the storm.

Despite the storm damage, Christmas in both communities continued as usual.

Lights were shining in both Moravian churches, where residents gathered to sing carols, read Bible verses, and exchange gifts.

In Quinhagak, residents traveled from house to house trading bowls of treats; candy; and akutaq, or Eskimo Ice cream, a mixture of oil, fish, and sugar with berries. At least 20 people treated George Johnson's family.

He says that they brought, “salmonberries, blue berries, red berries, greens from along the beach, excellent akutaq.”

The third community on Kuskokwim Bay did not sustain damage. City Administrator Karin Evans in Goodnews Bay says that driving on the roads felt dangerous during the storm, but no damage occurred.