Alaska’s recent cold snap tested critical infrastructure, including in Mertarvik

The addition of six new homes in Mertarvik means an added draw on power, and a recent state-wide cold snap was too much for the new community’s generators. A three-day power outage has resulted in frozen and broken pipes at the local water plant. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

A recent cold snap in rural Alaska tested the limits of power plants from Anchorage to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In Mertarvik, a loss of power meant that other critical infrastructure also saw catastrophic damage.

Multiple social media posts last week called for donations of both bottled water and firewood after the community of roughly 230 people lost power for three days.

“Everything is powered by a generator, but we don’t have a backup generator,” said Calvin Tom, Mertarvik’s tribal administrator.

Tom said that the main generator draws power from batteries that weren’t able to keep up with temperatures that fell to nearly 17 below zero Fahrenheit. That meant that the entire community was without electricity for more than three days.

“For some reason our batteries just drained, so on (Jan. 28) we didn’t have any power all day until the evening. It was all good the following night, and next morning I woke up to no power. So we came to a determination that the batteries were being drained,” Tom explained.

Tom said that they tried a few different methods: insulating the batteries from underneath, lifting them off a cold floor, charging them up and using a space heater to keep them warm, but they simply wouldn’t stay charged and couldn’t keep up with demand.

“The two smaller generators that we are using currently can’t take the load,” Tom said.

In the last year, the population in Mertarvik has increased from just over 180 people to nearly 230. That’s because at least half a dozen new homes were built there last year to house families relocating from Newtok, where permafrost is melting and the land is waterlogged and sinking.

With help from at least one federal agency and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, new batteries arrived from Bethel on Jan. 31 and the lights are now on in Mertarvik. But without electricity for a few days, the water plant froze. Now Tom said that Mertarvik is waiting for repair parts to fix broken pipes.

“There’s a little creek, it’s like a fresh spring water. It’s about a quarter mile outside the village and people get their water over there; you just need a four-wheeler or snowmachine to go to it,” Tom said.

According to the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, both the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation have shipped pallets of bottled water to Mertarvik. The BIA has also provided a shipment of firewood.

During cold snaps, a spokesperson said that the division often sees problems with critical infrastructure due to spikes in energy usage, just like the one that settled in over most of the state over the last two weeks.

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