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In the midst of the storm, a mad rush to keep the power on in Hooper Bay

An empty bulk fuel tank toppled in Hooper Bay during the storm.
Will McCarthy
An empty bulk fuel tank toppled in Hooper Bay during the storm.

Signs of the flood are everywhere. A steel culvert rests on top of a building that had been pushed off its frame. Fishing boats sit stranded out on the tundra. Seaweed and debris hang shoulder high off fences in the middle of town.

Parts of Hooper Bay were without power for about 36 hours over the weekend as a storm surge flooded the coastal community of about 1,300 people. But the situation could have been far worse – and threatened the town’s winter subsistence stock– if not for the work of two local power plant operators.

On Sept. 20, at the airstrip, cousins Leemon Andrew and Leemon Bunyan were working to restore power to the airstrip’s lights.

Andrew, the older of the two cousins, said things are still in a much better shape than just a few days ago.

“Everybody's happy that they have power,” Andrew said.

Andrew, born and raised in Hooper Bay, said he had never seen anything like the flooding that rocked the village over the weekend. As an AVEC power plant operator, he certainly hadn’t experienced anything like it. He only just started in April. His cousin, Bunyan, has only been working as a plant operator for three weeks. Both cousins are in their early 30’s.

“Everything's new to me,” Andrew said. “But we nearly had a power outage throughout the whole town.”

The past few days have been about as intense of an initiation into the job as anyone could imagine.

When the water started to rise up to the bulk fuel tanks and the power plant on Friday night, Leemon Andrew and Leemon Bunyan were there with an AVEC contractor.

Soon, some of the empty bulk fuel tanks started to lift and tilt. One toppled over completely. The falling tank caused the gaskets of the fuel lines to rupture. Those lines bring fuel from the bulk tanks to a smaller tank that powers the generator, which in turn powers the whole town. Now that power was close to shutting off completely.

They needed to figure out a solution.

“We had a bucket brigade going to fill up the day tank so the generator wouldn't run out of fuel,” Andrew said. “After the flood in the morning, the day tank was getting low.”

Without a functioning fuel line, Andrew, Bunyan, and the AVEC contractor became a human fuel line instead. As the water rose up toward their waists, debris floating around them, they started carrying bucket after bucket of fuel to the day tank.

If the generator shut down, the whole town would lose power. Everyone’s freezers are filled with moose meat and fish for the winter. Without power, Leemon Andrew said the freezers risked thawing and spoiling all the food inside. It was more than electricity - it was a matter of food security.

As the team worked, Robert Lohman, the AVEC contractor, kept an eye on the rising waters pummeling the bulk fuel tanks. With the water around his waist, he started unlocking the gates further up the hill, creating an escape route for the crew in case they needed to abandon the plant.

I asked Lohman if he was worried for his life.

“No,” Lohman said. “I’m old.”

Ultimately, the waters were low enough that they did not have to flee. Eventually, the group came up with a workaround for the bucket brigade. They ran a garden hose from the valve at the bottom of the tank to a pump, then ran another garden hose from that pump to the tank feeding the town’s generator. That, currently, is still the MacGyvered solution that is powering the village.

AVEC leadership is visiting the power plant on Wednesday to look for a more permanent solution.

Will McCarthy was a temporary news reporter at KYUK. Previously, he worked as a furniture mover, producer, and freelance journalist. Will's written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Texas Monthly. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.
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