Degrading permafrost likely caused Diomede city building’s collapse

Update: The Governor on Dec. 8 issued a disaster declaration, which  activates the state’s Public Assistance program and can reimburse local governments and certain non-profits for repairs to critical infrastructure and/or emergency protective measures. 

The Diomede city office building is in the process of being stabilized after a team of engineers arrived on the island on Sunday, Dec. 3 to assess the structural integrity of the affected buildings.
A week earlier, the city building slid off its foundation and came to rest with its weight pressed against the adjacent school building. At first it was thought the foundational stilts were rotted out, but the visiting engineers didn’t see any rot on the wood and instead suspect melting permafrost as the culprit that destabilized the building’s foundation.
As the weight of the leaning city building pushed on the school building, the integrity of the school building was questionable, prompting the evacuation of the school and the living quarters of the teachers. Since there is no overflow housing available on the island, the four teachers, the principal as well as three children of one teacher were flown off the island last week.
School was out last week and restarted on Monday via online homeschooling.
According to Bering Strait School District Superintendent Susan Nedza, the teachers had to be placed within the vast school district where teacher housing was available: two are in Gambell, two are in Teller and one teacher is in Shaktoolik. Nedza said the students and teachers were supplied with Chromebooks and Diomede’s kindergarten through high school students receive instruction online for the duration of the school closure. Frances Ozenna, parent as well as incident commander for the emergency, said that all of the 20 students’ families are luckily connected via Starlink to the internet, to receive online instructions by their own teachers. Kids younger than kindergarten are being taught by relatives, since Diomede didn’t have a Headstart program in nearly two decades,
On Sunday, a multi-agency team arrived on Diomede to assess the buildings, including Sean McKnight, a professional engineer and director of transportation with Kawerak Inc., Orville Ahkinga Jr., two engineers with the Alaska Dept. of Transportation from Fairbanks, and a contractor with Passive Homes, who has worked at Diomede before, and Gary Eckenweiler, the BSSD director of maintenance.
McKnight said in an interview with the Nugget that the school building at the time of the assessment has incurred only minimal damage but that the city’s building continues to move downhill and is pinching more and more on the school. “Secondly, we determined that the city building was not salvageable,” McKnight said. It was too heavily damaged to be salvaged. The plan now is to stabilize the building to keep it from moving any further into the school building. “And then we’re working with the state and other agencies to find funding for the removal of the building and overlook the stabilization of the site,” McKnight said.
While the engineers left again on Sunday, a local work force of eight use materials that were on the island already to stabilize the city building. Heavy beams already on the island for other building projects could be used to prop up the leaning office building. Ozenna described the stabilization looking like “jenga blocks” underneath the building. Once the building is deemed stable, everything will have to be moved out of the offices before it will be de-constructed. The building houses city offices, the Fire Department and the Post Office. A temporary post office was established at the old clinic building so that the postal service can be re-established to allow the flow of mail again.  
Superintendent Nedza said that the school district will send an engineer out to Diomede for an assessment of the school’s integrity once the city building is dismantled. “Then we make an official ruling as far as safety and reopening, but we need that building removed first, which we expect, hopefully, by Christmas time. And then we’re hopeful that by the end of January, we can be reopened.”
Nedza added that Senator Donny Olson and Representative Neal Foster have been helpful. “They reached out to the governor. And that’s how we got some of this quick assistance,” Nedza said.
Nedza added that the meal service had been interrupted and that the district’s food services has been working to get shelf safe meals to Diomede since nobody can cook in the school and provide breakfast and lunch.
 However, the hard work of stabilizing the building, removing the contents of the offices, and carefully dismantling the building is still ahead as winter and stormy weather is approaching.
McKnight said the city building weighs about 100 tons and it is crucial that it gets dismantled before a snow and iceload weighs it down even more and adds to the pressure on the school building. The goal is to have it de-constructed by Christmas. “It’s not like we have a lot of choice on the timeline,” said McKnight. “This is something that needs to be addressed sooner than later, because it’s only going to get worse.”
While they are dealing with this situation first, the underlying cause needs to be addressed in the future. “My opinion is that permafrost, which is what the buildings are sitting on, is degrading, which means it’s weakening, and this process has been accelerated by warming temperatures,” said McKnight. “There are half a dozen buildings or more on Diomede that are seeing this type of distress.” The school building is one of those, but the school district has been diligent on keeping the foundation of their school building in good repair, he said. But the degradation of permafrost, caused by a warming climate, will put more buildings in danger on Diomede. “We’re seeing other buildings on Diomede that need attention,” said McKnight.
Last year, Ozenna said, Diomede unsuccessfully applied for grants to replace the building, as it is over four decades old. She said they had plans and designs done but the funding was denied.
 “Maybe this will change it now,” she said.


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