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Ahtna Kanas Winter 2023

Ahtna Uses Innovation and Community Outreach to Help Save the Napakiak School

Napakiak, a Yup’ik village tucked in a bend of one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the United States, was threatened by the encroaching Kuskokwim River. According to the 2019 Denali Commission Statewide Threat Assessment, Napakiak is one of 73 remote Alaska communities facing the highest level of threat due to erosion, flooding, and permafrost degradation.

Ahtna Infrastructure & Technologies, LLC (AIT) was awarded the project of constructing a new pad and installing pilings for a replacement school. However, the project was put on hold because the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) was still negotiating a lease agreement with the Napakiak Corporation for the use of the land where the new school was to be located. This delay required demobilization of all materials and containers to Bethel to be staged on LKSD property. During this time the school faculty—and the students—watched the beaches where they once played being washed away.

The project resumed after Governor Dunleavy reprioritized Alaska’s school construction projects. Napakiak’s school now ranked at the top of the list. Napakiak residents and Elders expected the existing school to be under water within a year. Once the Governor fast-tracked the project, AIT completed its contract with the LKSD and quickly deployed to expedite and finish the project ahead of schedule. Having the pad in place allows the new school construction project to progress through design completion and be put out for bid in 2022, with construction in 2023.

The timing and moving of materials were a critical factor in the success of the project. AIT used state-of-the-art technology such as advanced sonar equipment to sound the changing areas along the Kuskokwim River to measure the safest access point for the barge to offload freight. Freight included 30,000 tons of gravel, 173 12-inch-by-60-foot pilings, and four 50,000-pound fuel tanks. Much like the shores of Napakiak, the shoreline for the barge landing was also eroding and over time had become too small to handle a barge of this size. AIT expanded the barge landing area to accommodate offloading and stockpiling of the materials and gravel for the project. AIT also needed to be innovative in determining how to move the 50,000-pound fuel tanks through town. The team engineered and fabricated a unique dolly to successfully do the job.

AIT’s Project Manager was a seasoned professional who grew up near Napakiak and has strong connections to the community, Native leaders, and Elders, as well as the available subcontractors and local workforce. Our Project Manager and team continually coordinated with the LKSD and all affected users, including Napakiak Corporation and the City of Napakiak, for housing, equipment rental, and local laborers. This benefited everyone by bringing needed revenue to the residents of this remote community. Although this was a challenging project with extremely technical and dangerous work due to the changing water and land conditions, AIT maintained a perfect safety record with zero incidents. As an Alaska Native-owned firm, Ahtna understands and honors the cultural significance of this facility to the City of Napakiak. Schools become the center for most community activities. The community embraced our presence because they knew Ahtna was there to save their school. The client extended kudos to the entire team for working through all the challenges, including the work stoppage, while still completing the project ahead of schedule, within budget, and with zero safety issues. In addition, AIT provided value-added items such as using geogrid for additional reinforcement in addition to the required geofabric and repurposing suitable excavated materials by creating five foundation pads throughout the City. This was at no additional cost to the LKSD or the City and ensured that the soils did not waste space in the local landfill. From all accounts, this project was a prime example of Excellence in Construction, from the use of innovative technology, excellent project management applications, and thoughtful and caring community outreach.