Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Edge

Over-turned Fuel Truck
photo by Stephen Tagarook

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how tenuous arctic life can be. When everything is running smoothly and functioning as it should, a quiet casualness can seep in creating a placid pool of distracted nonchalance. I wouldn’t want to live in fear or worry all the time, but there are plenty of good reasons to be on guard. And yet it’s easy to slip into a false sense of security and underestimate the need for being prepared.

Last week my classroom was disrupted unexpectedly when one of the students noticed unusual flashing lights outside the window. It turned out that the fuel truck had run across some soft snow and overturned. My first thought (I’m embarrassed to admit) was not for the safety of the driver, but of the fuel that might be pouring out onto the tundra. A couple of summers ago there was a substantial fuel spill that took literally months to clean up. I cringed thinking that it might have happened again. Thankfully, this time, the damage was minimal. Only a few drops of fuel actually made it to the ground and that was captured in the thick layer of snow…easy clean-up. Oh...and the driver was alright too.

But, with the fuel truck out of commission and temperatures plummeting into the negative forties, the next obvious concern was how fuel would be delivered across the village. Like a line of dominoes standing on end, everything here depends on something else. A downed domino in any direction spells trouble for the entire line. Our electricity is generated by burning fuel and most buildings in the village are heated by furnaces that require some electricity. Airstrip runway lights (our lifeline in many ways) are totally electric. Water and sewer pipes are only functional because of an electrical heat trace that is wrapped around every inch of the system. Without a maintained source of heat, a house can freeze up in a matter of hours and everything in it that has to do with plumbing (including the toilet) will crack as the water expands.

We were told that a portable emergency fuel pump was being flown in from Barrow. Each house would be allowed to order one drum (55 gallons) of fuel to keep furnaces going until the fuel truck was repaired and tanks could be filled properly. After all was said and done, the truck was up and running within a few days. You might say we dodged a bullet. I certainly would. Thoughts and images of the North Slope village of Kaktovik loom large in my mind during moments like these. That village wasn’t so fortunate and that’s something that we would do well to remember.

So my interest in purchasing a small generator has definitely been renewed. I’ve already ordered two kerosene heaters and may even order a couple more. If disaster never strikes, all this preparation might seem like overkill and even a little silly. But I’d rather seem silly than be sorry if/when the time comes.

Circumstances shift in a hurry on this northwestern edge of the continent. And I’m thankful that, for the moment, the most serious issues I have to deal with are picking up groceries at the airport, digging out the doghouse every few days, and avoiding frostbite. Well, okay, I am also dealing with a small leak in my water system that doused my bathroom floor with an inch of water….but that’s definitely a story for another day.


Floridacracker said...

You weren't kidding about being on the opposite end of the the continent!
I just spent some time reading your posts. What a great view into life on the extreme Northern edge.
I keep disaster supplies too and like you, would rather look silly than be sorry.
Love your site!

Kimberlee said...

Hey, FC! Thanks for visiting! I have really enjoyed your blog as well. I'm so glad someone pointed me in your direction.

It appears that we both live somewhat "on the edge." :) I remember having to endure hurricane season. Everyone is always relieved and thankful when November finally rolls around, especially if their house is still standing! I'm really glad you liked my site. I hope you'll visit again!

Steve said...

Now, that is extreme living! Very well related, Kimberlee.

lesle said...

Merry Christmas!

Kimberlee said...

Thanks, Steve. We were very fortunate. It turned out to be more of an inconvenience than a danger, but we definitely had a nervous couple of days! :)

Kimberlee said...

Hi, Lesle. Merry Christmas to you too! I hope you have a wonderful holiday. Thanks for the cute card link!

Renee said...

I understand about all the preparaation. Since Hurricane Rita hit a couple of years ago, I have been making many preparations that some people think is overkill too. But it isn't overkill if it makes you feel secure. My sister Kathi told me that and ever since, I don't care if people make fun of me for getting a storm shelter or wanting to build an earth sheltered home. If it makes you feel better than it is all worth it. And please get a generator..that would really come in handy.

Kimberlee said...

Hi, Renee!

It's great to hear from you. You're right about the importance of feeling secure. I've got a generator in an online shopping cart, but I'm waiting to consult with someone who knows more about these things than I do before I actually buy it. There is also the problem of how to store the gas for it. I don't like the idea of having gas cans in the house, but I'm not sure there is any other place that will work. Details...

What kind of storm shelter did you get? Are you really considering an earth sheltered home? What does that involve?

I hope you had a great Christmas!
Happy New Year, too!

Johnny said...

Thanks for the link about Kaktovik...Is there any follow-up about their situation...You have seen my pantry! You know that we could survive a month or more.
Could I have possibly been a Mormon in a past life???

Kimberlee said...

LOL! If they ever closed the commissary, military personnel could shop at your house! :)

The blizzard disaster at Kaktovik happened a couple of winters ago. Everything has been restored, but it did take weeks for some repairs, months for others. Although the blizzard did create some of the problems, it was the loss of electricity that caused most of the damage. It's a scary thing...but I am working toward being prepared for that scenario as much as I can be.

There are some follow-up articles and other information about Kaktovik linked on the left side bar...just beneath the "bird's eye view" of Atqasuk.

Renee said...

Here is the type of house we are looking into and
and this is the storm shelter we had installed

May have to copy and past that link, but it is pretty cool. It isn't very big but it will do for us and the doggies and kitties till we get our house built.
Keep up the good work on the blog. Very interesting stuff!

Kimberlee said...

Wow, Renee! When you talked about building an earth sheltered home I was imagining something much more primitive. I checked out the websites you linked and found really beautiful homes! Cool! So...where will the dirt come from? I don't remember seeing any hills on your property. How close are you to actually starting to build?

Renee said...

Hey Kimberlee,
We are on small hill. But with these houses, most people make their hill with dirt used to dig a pond. I think we are about 2 years from being able to start. Just depends on finances. We want to pay for the house in full. We are wayyyy to old for a mortgage again! So just depends on how much we can keep putting back and not having any major set backs. One of the companies is going to start on 2 this summer in Texas so we want to go see them as they are being built so we can get a better understanding. I just love this concept.
Keep in touch,