Gov. Mike Dunleavy authorized a disaster declaration Monday for a Southwest Alaska village that has not had running water for more than three weeks since its water plant burned down.
The action will unlock funding for a long-term solution, but officials said Monday that it does not change the current response.
“A declaration of disaster is really just a securing of funding streams for recovery,” said Paul Nelson, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “Response continues to happen whether there’s a declaration in place or not.”
Since Jan. 16, when the community’s water plant and washeteria burned, residents have relied on donated water bottles shipped to the village by plane or driven across a roughly 35-mile ice bridge from Bethel. Others in the community have hauled water and ice from the Kuskokwim River, which lies more than two miles south of the village, to use as drinking water. The nearby Tuluksak River, which runs next to the town, is contaminated and the water is unsafe to drink.
The community’s plight has picked up attention on social media during the last few weeks, with thousands of dollars in donations pouring into an online fundraiser that has sent supplies to the rural village.
On Monday morning, five legislators representing the Alaska Bush Caucus sent Dunleavy a request for state assistance. Requests appeared on social media, as well, garnering attention from even the pop-rap group Black Eyed Peas.
“The outpouring of goodwill is a testament to the spirit of Alaskans,” said the letter signed by legislators. “Sadly, this approach stands in stark contrast to the inaction of the State of Alaska, which has not sent help or responded to the plea of residents urging an emergency disaster declaration.”
Dunleavy issued the verbal disaster declaration Monday, although the written declaration was not available that evening. The state received a request for assistance from the community on Jan. 21, said Nelson. The state generally only declares a disaster immediately in situations where “the community is utterly overwhelmed and there is an imminent or immediate life threat,” he said.
“In this case, since there was some water in the community and there was the ability to move more water into the community to meet to meet those immediate needs of the community, we thought it was prudent to do more analysis of the current situation before determining the best way to move forward the state’s disaster declaration.”
Miles Baker, the governor’s legislative director, said he was out of the state last week. The governor’s office did not answer questions about the trip, including its length, purpose, or destination, and it could not be determined whether the trip contributed to the gap between the fire and the disaster declaration on Monday. In 2015, a similar fire destroyed the water treatment plant in the village of Alatna. In that case, a disaster declaration was issued 11 days after the fire, according to contemporary accounts.
Tuluksak is roughly 35 miles northwest of Bethel. The population of about 370 is mostly Alaska Native.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., the regional tribal health organization, has worked with the village in the aftermath of the fire to help connect them to federal agencies. The health corporation also shipped in bottles of water to the community and recently began working on a short-term solution that will provide running water to the school, said Brian Lefferts, director of the health corporation’s Office of Environmental Health & Engineering.
Work began over the weekend to set up filter to pump water from the Tuluksak River into the pipes of the community school. The running water would provide a community space where residents could go to wash clothes, but it would not be safe to drink, Lefferts said. The plan costs about $150,000 and may take three or more weeks to complete, according to the health center.
It may be months until the community has potable water, Lefferts said.
The intermediate plan will require the health center to move a water plant previously used in Bethel to Tuluksak. The heavy equipment will have to travel the ice road, which is not yet thick enough to safely handle the weight, Lefferts said. It will cost about $1.5 million to get the plant to Tuluksak and in working condition.
The state has filed for an extension to apply for federal disaster assistance, which would normally need to be requested within 30 days of a disaster, said Nelson. A federal disaster declaration happens when a disaster is noted to overwhelm state resources, he said. If approved, the federal declaration would pay for 75% of the state’s costs.
The state will have until mid-March to request a federal disaster declaration.
Nelson said a permanent fix — under discussion with a variety of agencies — could be “in the $6 million range.”
ADN reporter James Brooks contributed to this story.