‘People really pulled together’: Volunteers help fix Nenana’s frozen-up water plant

a water room with people working
City staff and volunteers worked throughout Monday at the Nenana water-treatment plant to repair damage from subzero-cold air that the system was exposed to after a malfunction left an overheard door open overnight. Workers included Dan Richardson, foreground, who did welding and fabrication work; (in background) plant Operator Clint Berry; master plumber Mike Hirt; City Councilman Rob Bennett; city maintenance tech Olaf Trettevik; and Elijah Verhagen. (Courtesy Josh Verhagen)

Nenana’s water-treatment plant froze up Monday, leaving about 150 homes without water for some 12 hours until city workers and volunteers got the system back up and running.

Nenana Mayor Josh Verhagen says he and a couple of city employees got to work around 3 a.m. Monday, so they could finish plowing snow from city streets before the regular workday began.

It’s a good thing that they got there early because they discovered an overhead door in the city’s water-treatment plant had been left open overnight, during which the temperature had plunged to -36 Fahrenheit.

“It’s a miracle that we happened to be early to see it this morning,” he said, “because most days we wouldn’t be in ’til around 8 o’clock. So, it could’ve been a whole lot worse.”

Verhagen suspects the mechanism that opens and closes the overhead door had malfunctioned because they tried to close it Monday morning, but it kept reopening. And he didn’t have a lot of time to investigate further because pipes in the facility were bursting and water was spraying – and he had to inform residents that they won’t have water when they get up.

“We needed to let everybody know because people were going to be waking up and trying to use their water,” he said.

A pipe being lifted with a cylinder of ice
When workers pulled apart pipe joints, they found solid ice. (Photo John Verhagen)

Verhagen says he posted a notice on the city’s Facebook pages that said, “The rest of the snow plowing will have to wait. Huge emergency at the water plant. Burst pipes, including the main…”

He told people on the system to not use water and to keep their circulation pumps running and heat traces on while repairs were underway. And he put out the word for anyone who could to meet at the water-treatment plant and lend a hand.

Before long, more than a dozen area residents gathered at the water plant. And then they got to work.

“Thankfully, we had our water-treatment operator here, and a couple other experts who knew what needed to be done, and how to bypass the right thing and what else to do,” the mayor said. “Because, literally, I mean it was like a maze of pipes.

At about the same time, Vehargen says he started getting calls from other local residents and officials, like Fire Chief Joe Forness and Nenana Native Association Tribal Administrator Jessica Shaw, both of whom offered to help distribute drinking water. Offers of help also came in from the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Representative Mike Cronk, the district’s legislator, and even an aide in Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office.

“People really pulled together – even without having to be asked,” he said.

Verhagen says the volunteers worked through the day, patching the leaks, rerouting pipes and fabricating work-arounds. And by the end of the afternoon, water was flowing again. He says more work will be required, and until the system is fully restored, residents will have to boil their water before they drink it or cook with it.

And the mayor says he hopes an overhead-door repairman from Fairbanks will be in today to fix the problem that caused the whole ordeal.