Little Diomede city building slides off its foundation, leaving community vulnerable for more damage
On Sunday, at about 11:30 a.m. the city building at Little Diomede slid off its aged, wooden foundational stilts. It is now leaning precariously against the school building, located downhill.
The suspected cause of the stilt failure is rotten wood that gave way.
Luckily the incident occurred on Sunday morning, when the building was not occupied. No injuries were reported, but the danger of the city building further shifting or collapsing persists.
With the city building leaning up on the school house, both buildings are in danger of sliding downhill or collapsing. This would endanger power, water and phone services of the island’s 27 households.
The city building houses the city office, the post office, the fire department and a room where telecom company GCI keeps its equipment.
Diomede set up an incident command, with Frances Ozenna acting as incident commander. In a phone interview with the Nugget she said that they were expecting the worst on Sunday as the building continued to slide, with fuel tanks on both the front and back of the building. They quickly cut the power to prevent any accidental sparks as the power lines were ripped from the building during the slide. The power was restored a few hours later. The city building is held up by the school building and at this point the structural integrity of the school building is unknown.
Ozenna said the bottom half of the school’s foundation is already affected, giving in to the pressure from the leaning city building.
As of Tuesday morning, the city building rested three-quarters off its foundation on the ground. Fuel lines are still connected to two fuel tanks with only a few gallons each in the oil drum.
“We need immediate assistance to get the building structurally sound so they can empty it out and demolish it so that school can resume after the holidays,” said Ozenna.
The City of Diomede has reached out to state and regional entities, requesting help.
As of Monday night, there was no response to Diomede, because of a storm with strong southeast winds moving through the Bering Strait.
Alaska State Emergency Operations Center Manager Jen Wallace with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’ Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management said in a phone interview with the Nugget on Tuesday that the state works with Kawerak and other state agencies on a plan to get the city office building off the school.
According to Kevin Knowlton with Kawerak, the organization’s transportation department and emergency preparedness cooperate to send a team out to Diomede to evaluate the situation, secure the city building and then to start disassembling the structure in order to alleviate the pressure of the building against the school building. Knowlton said Kawerak’s transportation director Sean McKnight and contractors who had previously worked at Diomede will hopefully make it to Diomede on Friday or Saturday to begin the work. He added that they may also bring an Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities engineer with them.
“Our goal is to have the kids back into school after Christmas break,” Knowlton said.
Diomeders were under the impression that a Black Hawk was in Nome waiting on weather to improve to get an engineer out to the island, but the Black Hawk team in Nome was waiting for inclement weather to clear to take Santa and Mrs. Claus with gifts to Golovin. That mission was canceled for Tuesday due to weather.
Downhill from both the school building and the leaning city building is the town’s powerplant, the washeteria, the clinic’s sewer line and the town’s fuel lines.
City Council member Samantha Menadelook said that the power plant could be affected if the buildings collapse. “That would mean no power for Diomede, for who knows how long, because they would have to get probably new generators out here and it’s wintertime now,” she said.
With all fire department equipment inside the unstable city building, the town also worries that a potential fire could not be put out.
School was suspended as the school building’s integrity is questionable. On Facebook, the Diomede School posted “The district has scheduled a leveling and building expert to assess the damage to the building. Until we are given the all clear for the safety of all students, staff and community members the school will remain closed.”
According to Ozenna, Bering Strait School District formulated a plan to get the five teachers, including the principal, and one of the teachers’ three kids off the island as their living quarters are in the school building.
Diomede’s students will be homeschooled for now, Ozenna said. There was no option to get the students off the island, many of them very young, to school them elsewhere.
Another concern was the temporary suspension of mail delivery to Diomede as the post office is located in the city building. Ozenna said on Tuesday that the city has arranged for an alternate site of the post office in the old clinic building, so that mail can continue to be flown in to Diomede.
She is worried that the interruption to the sparse flight schedule could mean a food shortage. “We need the food supply and medical supplies to come in,” she said.
Usually, the Pathfinder helicopter provides passenger service on Monday and mail service on Wednesday. Due to the forecasted storm on Monday, the passenger service was moved to Sunday. The next service, weather pending, will be on Wednesday, when the teachers and ANTHC workers on the island will be flown out.
Ozenna said that the city council has passed a resolution for a disaster declaration and sent the resolution to the governor.
She added that last year the city has applied for grants for a new city office building. The funding was not granted, so they will again for the third time apply.
For now, she said, “Our biggest concern is that we won’t be able to do anything until we stabilize the problem.”
This story was updated on Tuesday to reflect new developments.