Alaska News Nightly: November 9, 2011

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Western Alaska Villages Dealing With Rising Water

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

Communities on Alaska’s west coast are still being battered by a huge storm. The national weather service says the intensity of the storm can be compared to a category 3 hurricane. Wind gusts up to almost 90 miles per hour were recorded in some communities over night. Now, villages are dealing with rising water. KNOM reporter Ben Matheson in Nome has been following the developments and joins me now.

Few Power Outages Reported During Storm

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The Alaska Village Electric Cooperative is reporting few outages after Tuesday night’s storm. Meera Kohler is the President and CEO of AVEC, she says there is a power outage currently in Tununak.

“There we have one feeder that’s tripped. There’s a blown cutout on that feeder and we figure there’s about 40 homes that are out of power there,” Kohler said.

Kohler says a lineman is there now and she expects power to be restored by early evening. Kohler says high winds and driving snow are more problematic than waves for AVEC customers, so she thinks they’re probably going to be ok.

As Storm Lashes West, Edgecumbe Students Call Home

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The storm isn’t over, but the worst appears to have passed for many communities along Alaska’s west coast. A monster storm packing hurricane force winds and high seas came out of the Bering Sea this week, causing places from Unalakleet to Point Hope to brace for the worst.

And students at a state-run boarding school in Sitka have spent much of the last 24 hours working to reach family members back home.

It’s lunchtime at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, and students are shooting hoops in the gymnasium. The school is home to hundreds of students from all over Alaska, including many from communities along the state’s west coast.

For them, the last day has consisted of phone calls home, trying to get any word they can from relatives in the storms’ path. A group of students gathers in the entryway of the gym and I ask them to raise their hands if they’ve spoken to anyone back home in the last 24 hours. Most of the hands go up. Michelle Slwooko’s does not.

“I’m trying to get ahold of my mom and my brothers, but the cell phones and the home phones aren’t working,” Slwooko says. “I’m really worried about my family and my dog.”

Slwooko is a senior at Edgecumbe. She comes from Gambell, on the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island. She might be one of the few who hasn’t been able to reach home yet, but even among those who have, the updates have been sporadic. And that’s difficult when you’re far away, says senior Evelyn Komonaseak, from Teller.

“It’s kind of scary not knowing what’s happening, just because we’re so far away from home,” says Komonaseak. “You don’t know if everyone at home is safe just because of the lack of communication and all that.”

Komonaseak says she’s reached family back home: “It was really windy and they all had to evacuate to a new site – more houses two miles south of Teller. I haven’t gotten anything else.”

Senior Janice Homekingkao is from Koyuk – a community of about 300 people at the north end of Norton Bay, between Unalakleet and Nome.

“I just got off the phone with my dad and he said it flooded badly and the caches went down – where they hang dried fish – they all went down,” said Homekingkao, adding that it was just good to hear voices from home. “Yes, I was so worried last night I called my dad and I made sure that all my siblings were home. He’s like, ‘OK, you don’t have to worry.’ They were all fine in the morning.”

They say Facebook has been more reliable than the phone in many cases. And their feelings are mixed on being so far away from home. Some said it was difficult not to be with family right now. Others said they were glad they missed it. But all of them, including freshman Dani Merculief, from St. George Island, say it’s been important to have other western Alaskans at school.

“You get a better understanding and you have people supporting you while you’re worried,” Merculief said. “They know what you’re going through.”

Edgecumbe’s academic principal, Bernie Gurule, says the school has relaxed its cell phone policy. If students get calls during class they can step into the hallway and answer. And those who don’t have cell phones can use school phones if they need to reach home

Gurule says the students are taking things in stride, but also that the mood in the school has definitely changed.

“I wouldn’t call it an anxiety,” he said. “I wouldn’t go that far. But there’s kind of a little more excitement. They’re anxious to hear about what’s happening at home, and they’re anxious to share that with other people, too.”

Gurule says even he’s been impressed at their ability to keep in touch with friends and family on the other side of the state.

“I think a few years ago it might be a little bit different,” Gurule said. “If not everybody had a cell phone, if not everybody could get on Facebook, or whatever the case may be. There’s a lot of communication going on right now, and that’s probably the best that could happen right now.”

With so many students from all over the state, almost any major event in Alaska is bound to resonate here. Gurule says this might be the first one that’s impacted so many students at the same time.

Young Urges Super Committee to Come Up With Sellable Plan

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

With just two weeks left until the Deficit Reduction Committee must come up with a plan to save over $1 trillion, Alaska’s Representative Don Young is urging it to go big. Young signed on to a bipartisan letter last week calling for the so-called Super Committee to come up with a sellable plan.

The letter supported by 100 House members was notable for its mix of Democratic and Republican signatories and because it acknowledges there may have to be a mix of both cuts and revenue. Previously most Republicans wouldn’t budge on revenue hikes. The letter was vague on details, but Representative Young says it’s the spirit of the message that counts.

“We think – I signed that letter, the 40 Republicans and 60 Democrats, this is an opportunity to step up to the plate and solve this problem. And they may not listen to but we really think this is very very important, and a bipartisan effort,” Young said.

Despite his call for a plan, Young is very pessimistic. He doubts the committee will come up with anything by the Nov. 23 deadline – and if it does, Young doubts it can pass the U.S. House.

“This is their opportunity, on that committee, they asked to be on it, they should do something. Even if it costs them their election. That’s the challenge they have. Now whether they can rise about that concept is another question. If it was a proposal that does address entitlements, which is going to be the biggest argument, not those that receiving it now but those that are receiving it in the future, probably entail some type of tax in certain areas, which is a no to a lot of people on my side of the aisle, but if we don’t do something we’re gonna go in the tank,” Young said.

Young says if the Super Committee doesn’t come up with a viable plan, and if Congress doesn’t pass it by the Christmas deadline, there’s major trouble ahead. If no agreement is reached, automatic cuts will go into affect across-the-board, slashing over a trillion dollars in spending. Young says that would be indiscriminate and disastrous.

“That wacks the military really hard. And it doesn’t solve any of our problems, it’s just a cut. And I’ve said all along cuts won’t solve this problem, controlled spending will. Controlling the spending. And then we have to go forth and try to do something other than controlling spending, Get something in the pipeline that’s real money, not funny money or borrowed money,” Young said.

Young is frustrated by the lack of information coming out of the Deficit Reduction Committee… but says the real reckoning day will be in two weeks, when it has to come up with a plan.

Army Still Investigating Alaska Soldier’s Suspicious Death

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The army is still investigating the death of an Alaska based soldier who died under suspicious circumstances on deployment at an outpost in Afghanistan. Private Danny Chen was found shot to death in a guard tower there. Investigators are working to determine if it was a suicide or homicide. Danny Chen’s death has gotten a lot of attention from media in New York City, where Chen’s parents live.

New York Times reporter Kirk Semple wrote a story recently. He did dozens of interviews for the piece, including several with Danny Chen’s friends and family members. He says Chen’s parents are frustrated with the investigation.

North Slope Election Won’t Be Decided Until Tuesday

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

North Slope Borough residents will not have a final answer on who their new mayor will be until next Tuesday. The borough had a run off election yesterday between Charlotte Brower and George Ahmaogak.

Dora Spencer is the senior office specialist in the borough clerk’s office. She says, they’ve received the numbers from villages throughout the borough and are now waiting for the ballots to arrive for verification. So far, Charlotte Brower is in the lead.

“For Charlotte Brower, she has 906 votes, and George Ahmaogak, 841 votes,” Spencer said.

Still undetermined are 268 questioned and absentee ballots that must be examined next Tuesday, Nov. 15.

With Brower leading by only 65 votes, the election is still up in the air.

Edward Itta is the outgoing mayor, having met term limits. George Ahmaogak was the Borough’s mayor for five terms before Itta.

Cobb: ‘Elation Just Doesn’t Seem Like a Strong Enough Word’

Len Anderson, KSKA –Anchorage

While a number of questions remain over the disappearance of University of Alaska Anchorage runner, Marko Cheseto, the most important one was answered early Wednesday morning.

He is alive.

Cheseto’s roommates reported him missing Monday morning. He had been last seen Sunday evening about 7 o’clock at the campus social sciences building.

Wednesday, at approximately 3:30am university police received a call from University Lake Springhill Suites that Cheseto had just walked into the hotel. The hotel is located near the campus. Cheseto was in “extremely hypothermic” condition and taken to Providence Medical Center.

UAA Athletic Director Steve Cobb says so far nothing is really known about Cheseto’s situation since Sunday evening and only a bit more concerning his medical situation.

“We don’t know right now. There’ll be time to find out about the last two days at some point in the future. All we know right now is that he’s in the hospital and he’s receiving treatment for severe frostbite of his feet,” Cobb said.

The All-American runner had just returned from cross-country team’s highly successful weekend at the NCAA Division II championship where Anchorage’s women and men’s teams qualified for the national championships as well two UAA runners won the individual titles.

Cheseto, who had won the West Region title for the past two seasons, had used up his cross country eligibility and traveled as team manager.

Cobb said the runner’s long association with the university made the runner’s continued disappearance more personal.

“It was gut wrenching and heart breaking. He’s been a Seawolf here for a number of years. He’s been extraordinarily successful in the classroom and competing. It was like missing a family member. We were worried to death and of course thrilled that he was found and is getting medical treatment. Elation just doesn’t seem like a strong enough word,” Cobb said.

On Tuesday Cheseto was the object of massive search not only throughout the entire university district, but also along Anchorage’s miles of trails.

Rebecca Irene Safe After Storm

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

After weathering a stormy night, the fishing vessel Rebecca Irene is on its way back to Unalaska.

The 140-foot catcher-processor lost power in one engine on Tuesday morning, leaving it stranded in open ocean as the massive weather front hitting western Alaska moved in.

As a precaution, the Coast Guard cutter Sherman evacuated 20 of the 34 crewmembers on Tuesday afternoon and stayed with the Rebecca Irene through the night. Petty Officer Sara Francis says the conditions near Unimak Pass weren’t as extreme as forecast.

“The worst weather they saw was 30 mile per hour winds, 6 foot seas, and 17 foot swells.”

Forecasters had been predicting 55 mile per hour winds and 35-foot seas for the area.

A tug contracted by the Rebecca Irene’s parent company Iquique US arrived on scene early this morning (Nov 9) and hooked up a towline.

Dan Magone owns the tug Double Eagle. He says the Eagle had to dodge some rough weather during the storm.

“It had to duck in behind Akutan Island there for a while. They had gusts of 70-80 [mph].“

The Rebecca Irene, the Double Eagle, and the Sherman are making their way toward Unalaska and are expected in port Thursday evening, barring any complications.

Magone says it’s going to be a slow ride.

“Some of these boats we’re able to tow 6-7 knots no problem. But this one here is a pretty hard tow.”

The Rebecca Irene is carrying 270,000 pounds of frozen fish. The crewmembers who were evacuated will stay on board the Sherman until they reach Unalaska.

So far the Coast Guard hasn’t had to deploy any of its other assets in response to the storm. Two Jayhawk helicopters remain stationed in the region, one in Cold Bay and one in King Salmon, and a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter is in Unalaska.

Cordova Teacher Named 2012 Alaska Teacher of the Year

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

A Cordova math and science teacher has been named the 2012 Alaska teacher of the year. Cara Heitz has been teaching at Cordova Junior and Senior High School for the past six years. Heitz was headed down a different career path before entering the education field.