Alaska state officials have so far tallied 89 residential buildings severely impacted by a storm that hit Western Alaska over the weekend, but a full estimate of the damages will not be available for days, according to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who traveled to the region earlier in the week.
The remnants of pacific typhoon Merbok that hit Western Alaska beginning on Saturday destroyed roads, upturned houses, leveled subsistence cabins and scattered debris along 1,000 miles of coastline.
Dunleavy said in a briefing Thursday that it was too early to provide an estimate of the costs of damages wrought by the storm, at least in part because community members, local governments and state agencies are still assessing the extent of the destruction.
“We anticipate we’ll find things that nobody has yet seen that need to be worked on, so those estimates will probably be stretching out into the future,” Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy requested a federal disaster be declared for the region to help with recovery efforts ahead of the fast approaching winter freeze up. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell is scheduled to arrive in Alaska Friday, directly from a trip to Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Fiona caused widespread devastation. Criswell is scheduled to travel to the affected area in Western Alaska over the weekend.
Dunleavy has already requested $10 million in state emergency funds to begin addressing immediate needs. In 2011, $30 million in federal disaster funds were sent to Alaska to assists in sort repairs. The Dunleavy administration expects costs from this event to surpass that.
The governor traveled earlier in the week to Bethel, Newtok, Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Nome, Golovin, Elim and Koyuk with other state officials to assess damages as the storm died down. He said Thursday he planned to return to the region Oct. 1 to assess the progress on repairs.
Around 130 members of the Alaska National Guard, State Defense Force and Naval Militia have deployed to the region, according to Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe. They are tasked with debris removal and communicating with community member to understand their needs, Saxe said.
Among the most severe damages identified so far by state officials are destroyed sections of road between Nome and Council, and roads in Elim, Golovin and Nome.
Ryan Anderson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation, said Thursday that of the Nome-Council road, the department estimates five to 10 miles have been “completely obliterated” and an additional five to 10 miles have “heavy damage.” In Golovin, around three miles have been “washed out” and in Elim, Front Street was “completely destroyed.”
Anderson said all airports in the region are operational. Some Federal Aviation Administration weather systems are damaged and the Alaska Department of Transportation is working with FAA to restore them to operation, according to Anderson.
The state’s disaster programs are focused on “getting things like plywood, insulation, tin for roofs out to the communities now,” even as the state awaits for a response from the federal government on a disaster declaration request, according to Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Bryan Fisher.
“That’s a separate program that’s happening right away to make sure we can button up homes and make sure residents out there have a safe and warm place to be before winter shows up,” Fisher said.
If a federal disaster is declared, FEMA typically covers 75% of response costs. Dunleavy requested 100% of costs be covered. President Joe Biden has already approved a similar request for the Puerto Rico rebuilding effort.
Dunleavy said state agencies are operating under a four-week deadline to address immediate needs with winter freeze-up looming, including flying in thousands of pounds of food and water to replace lost or damaged supplies in several communities, repairing roads and bridges, removing debris, and getting houses back on their foundations.
“It’s really about getting everything up and running and ready and prepared for winter,” Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy also said he spoke with the director of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Thursday by phone.
“I just said to him, ‘look, the damage may not be as extensive as in Puerto Rico or some of the other places where we have hurricanes, but it’s our timeline that’s the issue, it’s our remoteness that’s the issue, it’s our lack of infrastructure that’s the issue,’” Dunleavy said. “We just need to make sure that we’re not going to be bureaucratic when it comes to aid and getting people up and off their feet in the next four weeks.”
Some of the damage and lost buildings were subsistence cabins — some of which built over years and lacking insurance or documentation that is typically used to get relief aid for rebuilding.
“We will have discussions with the feds and others on how that is part of the food gathering system for folks out there. So we’re going to try to do everything we can to get people whole across the board,” Dunleavy said.
The Alaska Federation of Natives sent earlier this week letters to Biden, the Alaska congressional delegation, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and Dunleavy regarding the storm response and its unforeseen impacts on the more than 100 Western Alaska villages affected by the typhoon.
In a letter to Biden, AFN President Julie Kitka wrote that several communities have no clean drinking water and others have no place to dispose of human waste.
“Your policies on building resilience and environmental just and support adaptation are being solely tested by the impacts of this super storm,” Kitka wrote to the president, urging his administration to work with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Association of Alaska Housing Authorities on water, sanitation and housing concerns.
In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, Kitka requested a three-month extension on grant compliance deadlines. Many tribes rely on federal grants to meet basic community needs. She also requested a four-week extension for tribes to apply to new grants, including for broadband projects made available through the recently passed infrastructure bill.
“We realize this is an inconvenience to the agencies involved, but the alternative is that nearly half the tribes in the United States are left behind and unable to participate in these historic opportunities,” Kitka wrote.
[Read the letter from the Alaska Federation of Natives to President Biden]