Lower Kuskokwim students return to classrooms that served as weekend storm shelters

A river flooded over its banks, right up to the front of a school building
The William Miller Memorial School in Napakiak, Alaska on Sept. 18, 2022. (Courtesy Bethany Hale)

Western Alaska’s massive storm last weekend sent residents of six communities in the Lower Kuskokwim School District to their school buildings for refuge. Classrooms turned into bedrooms, gyms into informal dining halls.

Superintendent Kimberly Hankins says those same classrooms are filled with students again, with schools already returning to instruction Monday even as staff begin to clean up and take stock of damages.

“Everyone is sort of back in session and trying to attend to student learning while we also attend to storm cleanup and assessment of damage in and around, not just the main school building, but all of our facilities,” Hankins said.

According to Hankins, schools served as evacuation centers in Newtok, Kipnuk, Nightmute, Kwigillingok, Kwethluk and Tununak. At one point, as many as 70 people were sheltering in Newtok’s school building. In all six communities, residents have since been able to return home.

So far, damage to the school buildings seems to be limited. For Hankins, it’s a point of pride that people can turn to the school in times of crisis.

“I’m just happy that we have the space to offer in order to shelter folks when situations like this happen,” Hankins said. “We work closely with the community so that folks receive the message that they are welcome to come up to the school and they can seek safety there.”

Although no school interiors flooded, there was significant erosion in some communities that brought the buildings much closer to the shoreline.

In Newtok, Hankins estimated that the school building is now only 90 feet from the water, down from about 125 before the storm.

In Napakiak, the school is only 75 feet from the water. That’s after the back half of the school was demolished this summer, which would have put the building even closer to the riverbank. Some boards beneath the school and piping running to the building were also damaged in Napakiak. Teachers evacuated their housing, which sits closest to the river, as water rose to their doorstep.

Both Napakiak and Newtok already had plans in place to retreat from the water because of erosion concerns even before the storm. Newtok is relocating the entire town to higher ground, while Napakiak is moving its community further back from the river.

Hankins said that the district is continuing to assess the safety of the buildings. With continued erosion, there could come a point that these schools might be deemed unsafe for use.

“Certainly student and staff safety is always our number one priority, so our team is constantly assessing and reassessing,” Hankins said. “I’m really hopeful that we won’t see additional fall storms that are as impactful as what we just experienced. But, you know, we never know what’s to come.”

For now, local maintenance staff will be working on cleaning up debris left from the storm. As a clearer picture of damages emerges, the school district may send extra staff out to communities that need more resources.

KYUK - Bethel

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