Disaster struck the native Alaskan village of Tuluksak on a January morning when its water treatment plant caught fire. Villagers worked frantically to douse the flames with ice and water from the Tuluksak River as thick smoke poured from the building.
They fought the fire for hours on Jan. 16 before finally putting it out, but the damage was done. The plant – the only source for fresh clean water for close to 500 people - was destroyed.
With no roads connecting it to nearby towns, the village faced a real problem. The nearest major city is Anchorage, a 400-mile trip that involves taking two plane rides and from which all essential supplies are flown into the village.
For these Alaska natives, many of whom belong to the Tuluksak Native Community tribe, the village has been home to their families for generations. People did not want to have to move elsewhere for a safe water source, and residents feared the water from the Tuluksak River was contaminated by past gold mining operations.
“I love it because I grew up here,” 33-year-old Kristy Napoka, secretary-treasurer of the tribe and utilities manager, said. “Everyone knows one another, and if something bad were to happen, everyone comes together and works together. I love everything about where I live. It’s beautiful.”
That’s when people from communities near and far came together to help.
In California, a woman who was raised in Sitka, Alaska, heard about the fire and joined with a woman in Anchorage to raise money to get water to Tuluksak. To send $100 of water cost $1,000 in shipping fees. Soon, through a GoFundMe™ page, community members from around the globe chipped in, raising more than $115,000 to-date to help provide fresh water to the community.
As news of the village’s struggles spread, others pitched in to help. Cargo planes reduced their fees to fly to the village. Taboo Nawasha, a rapper and member of the Black-Eyed Peas, donated to the village and shared posts on social media with the hashtag #operationtogo to urge others to help.
The Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Alaska and PepsiCo teamed up to donate pallets of bottled water totaling more than 6,000 pounds.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski worked to find a federal solution to help the community. “Help cannot come fast enough,” she said. “Water is water.”
Weeks later, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a disaster declaration dedicating $1 million in state funds to be used for Tuluksak recovery efforts. Additionally, the federal Indian Health Service approved a $6.5 million grant to replace the water treatment plant.
On March 2, 45 days after the fire, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation restored access to the communities’ running water supply after installing a temporary treatment system.
There is still a lot of work to do. Construction for a permanent water treatment plant will not begin until the summer of 2022.
While more permanent solutions are on the way, the Tuluksak community has continued to have access to drinking water thanks to help from Alaskans, beverage companies and neighbors from around the world.
“The outpouring of goodwill is a testament to the spirit of Alaskans,” Alaska state legislators wrote in the Delta Discovery.