As support streams in, one village still accounting for what was lost in Western Alaska storm

Golovin was hurt worse than other places in the Norton Sound region by the remnants of typhoon Merbok as it swirled up through Bering Sea last weekend. Repairing the damage is going to take time — and the clock is ticking on winter’s arrival.

GOLOVIN — Nothing looks quite right in the low part of Golovin.

Not the homes, not the land or roads, and not the water still pooled up like brackish ponds in people’s yards. When the floodwaters finally receded from last weekend’s powerful storm, it left this village of 150 choked by debris: mud and muck mixed with spilled diesel and sewage, driftwood and stumps, building material stripped off homes by the wind or dashed to pieces by days of pounding waves.

And sand.

Sand is now everywhere. Sand shorn from the coastline and redeposited in the worst of places: inside houses, burying outbuildings, choking the engines of idled snowmachines and four-wheelers buried to their handlebars. Sand drifted everywhere like blizzard snow that will never in a million years melt.

Even in the best of cases, things won’t be fixed back up for a long time.

Golovin was hurt more than any other place in the region by the remnants of typhoon Merbok as it swirled up through Bering Sea. Houses moved hundreds of feet from their perches. Subsistence equipment disappeared or was destroyed. Shipping containers, boats and old fuel tanks were jostled around and remain stuck where they shouldn’t be, tipped at odd angles. Family camps and cabins were obliterated.

[Biden approves Western Alaska disaster request as FEMA arrives to assess storm damage]

Of Golovin’s 64 homes, 22 were badly damaged, seven of them likely not salvageable, according to a local damage assessment last week. Others that endured structurally are ruined on the inside, with every meaningful possession contaminated by floodwater.

“It’s not livable right now,” said Celeste Menadelook, describing her family’s home.

A new mother, Menadelook and her husband are sleeping in her small office at the town’s tribal building with their 4-month-old daughter while their house is torn down to the studs, its flooring, insulation and drywall ripped out and hauled to the dump. Gone too are items that can’t be replaced, from a laptop full of family photos to handmade fur hats and mitts for winter.

“My parki that my aana made. Things that were passed down. Our appliances. Everything has to go. Our washer, dryer, refrigerator, our bedding, our cabinets, our couches. Everything has to go because it smells like sewer in the house,” Menadelook said.

Supplies are flowing to Golovin in an effort to help. Charity is pouring in. Menadelook soothed her infant Wednesday beside folding tables laden with donations that kept arriving throughout the day.

In the days and weeks ahead, charity and relief will keep arriving to Golovin and other Western Alaska communities contending with widespread wreckage. While that aid blunts some of the immediate hardship, it is no replacement for all that is lost, residents say. Especially with the clock ticking on winter’s arrival.

‘Other people care’

Donny Olson, state senator for the region and Golovin resident, looked like he’d been on the losing end of a bar fight, sporting a gnarly black eye as he rushed around repairing electrical wiring in the airplane hangar attached to his house.

“What happened was this,” Olson said, standing by a doorway in his home, the first floor of which had been thoroughly buried under sand.

As he raced to protect the house from the storm surge’s rising water, he darted outside, timing his sprint to evade the rolling waves.

“I withstood the wave, but I wasn’t ready for the back,” Olson said. “When it hit the wall it came right back on me and threw me into one of these four-by-fours.”

[Hooper Bay families displaced by flooding search for a permanent solution]

Somehow, he still managed to get four young children evacuated from the property and up the hill to the tribal building as the storm water rose. It was one of several dramatic rescues, including an elder who was moved out of his home to safety in the bucket of a front-end loader.

The cleanup work at the Olson house, like many, is immense. Eight volunteers came by to help shovel out all the sand. With the school closed for a week during recovery, local teachers were chipping in like a roving labor corps, with work crews sent in by the school district to repair teacher housing, which was also damaged. Olson and his wife, Willow, got a hand piling up all the saturated possessions from their first floor out in the airplane hangar, and were waiting to see what could maybe be saved.

“The city has opened the washeteria for use, so I’m gonna start hauling stuff over there,” Willow said. She estimated they had about 50 loads worth, though most of it is probably a lost cause.

Willow Olson was one of the many Bush residents who shared dramatic photos of the storm and its havoc to social media in real time when there was power and network coverage to do so. The images helped draw attention from all over the state and beyond to just how intense the storm was. And in its aftermath that awareness, according to Olson, has helped conjure an array of support, from messages of solidarity to tangibles like food, supplies, labor.

“That has helped because it lets me know that other people care. They’re listening and they’re trying to respond in whatever way possible,” she said.

By midweek, those contributions were accumulating and more manpower was materializing.

Inside the tribal hall was a running list on a whiteboard of who had sent food and goods, organizations like the Bering Strait School District and Ryan Air, alongside the partial names of charitable individuals: “Anahma,” “Barb A,” “Delaney J,” “Kenai Guy.” There were big boxes full of pre-assembled sandwiches sent by the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that decamped to Nome after the storm subsided. Cases of shelf-stable staples like breakfast cereal, cans of tuna, mac and cheese, granola bars, and canned soup were piled beside lumpy sacks of oranges, apples, and several cantaloupes donated by a mining company in the region. An unknown donor had left two jars of silver salmon and a can of seal oil by the back door. Hot bowls of spaghetti and moose soup were consumed, the coffee pot never empty.

Community members were breaking down the piles and reassembling them into boxes for families to take home. More supplies like bottled water and clothing were accumulating in the sanctuary of the Covenant Church in the lower part of town.

[Here are some ways to help communities ravaged by storms in Western Alaska]

‘This house don’t belong here’

The state sent 130 personnel out to Nome and Bethel to assist with recovery, members of the Alaska National Guard and other quasi-military units working as a joint task force under the banner of Operation Merbok Response would disperse from the hubs to impacted villages. Three members of the Alaska State Defense Force were camped out in the tribal hall asking Golovin Mayor Charlie Brown what kinds of supplies and manpower would be the biggest help, and promising to send out good workers with “strong backs, weak minds” who could take orders on the grunt work ahead without giving sass or unwanted creative input.

By Thursday, a crew of 12 guardsman was on the ground, helping with debris removal, mucking out homes and buildings.

Brown was highly sought after Wednesday, peppered with questions and requests by visitors. Members of the Red Cross asked him to show them damaged homes so they could begin making assessments. A man from Bering Straits Native Corp. requested a tour of town to find out what building materials people most need. By Thursday, the corporation had managed to ship out a whole box truck filled with 10,000 pounds of essential supplies: generators, shop vacs, Tyvek suits and gloves. A small team from Norton Sound Health Corp. came in on a chartered plane from Nome with 40 pizzas, and listened to residents describe the conditions of their property before dispensing advice for disinfecting what might be saved.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said Norton Sound Health Corp. head Angie Gorn. “It’s hard to know what to say.”

A sturdily built man with a calm demeanor, Brown showed the Red Cross team a dilapidated home that a young man had recently begun trying to fix up and make habitable. It had floated 200 feet from its parcel.

“This house don’t belong here,” Brown said.

Another small house was unmoored and came to rest in the middle of an intersection, prompting four-wheelers and trucks to circumvent it like a poorly planned roundabout.

The day was chilly, and Brown told the visitors most of the heaters used to warm homes are completely shot.

“There’s a lotta those that need to be replaced,” he said.

Down by the shore, the storm waves tore deep gashes into the land, chewing open the protective banks that buffer homes from the sea. Shreds of fishing nets tangled up in tree stumps like seaweed. All along the coastline were big smooth stones churned out of the seafloor and sprinkled on a beach that now extends much farther into town than it used to.

In spite of all that’s happened, no one in Golovin mentioned leaving. There was no talk of pulling up stakes and moving to Nome or Anchorage. Everyone talked about what will come next as a process of restoration, not departure or abandon.

‘It came in pretty fast’

Jack Brown is the oldest man in Golovin. He’s seen the country change in his nearly 80 years, remembers that in 1955 “the first moose was caught. Now they’re everywhere.”

But the storm that slammed into the west coast of Alaska last week was without an equal — at least not in living memory here.

“They were never this bad. We never had storms here in the ‘50s,” Brown said, stroking his white billy-goat’s beard and glancing out the window toward the surf.

Brown lives in a condemned house with a faulty foundation that shudders in the wind, but is thankfully well enough up the town’s main hill he was spared the worst of the storm’s wrath. It’s the old side of the village that suffered, the low part of town that rambles down into a pointy spit poking into Golovin Bay like a finger jabbing at a balloon. Brown didn’t leave his quaking home during the storm, because the danger wasn’t from the wind but the water.

“Didn’t wanna go. Didn’t see a need to, since I wasn’t gonna be run over by water,” he said. “It came in pretty fast.”

At some point as Golovin was flooding, utility workers cut the power to prevent further damage to the electrical system. A few homes and buildings ran generators to keep lights on, but between the power loss and floodwaters seeping into buildings, many if not most of the town’s refrigerators and freezers failed.

Beside the small store was a cockeyed shipping container meant for cold storage. Inside, mounds of wetted cardboard boxes were gradually collapsing in on themselves as frozen food thawed and spoiled, the whole container smelling like open-air fish market.

The scale of food lost is enormous. And not just any food. Though its population is small, Golovin is a strong subsistence community, accounting for roughly 55 tons of wild food harvested from the land annually, according to Sean McKnight, transportation director for Kawerak, the regional nonprofit covering this part of the state.

And the timing of the storm couldn’t be worse for food security. Families had just wrapped up the most productive periods for putting up food, filling caches, freezers, and pantries to get through the lean winter months.

“There was three freezers out in the shop that were damaged, tipped over,” said Ruth Peterson, an elder born and raised in Golovin.

Her multi-generational family lost almost all of the year’s subsistence take: “Moose, beluga, fish, dried fish, berries.”

“It takes a lot to process all that,” she added.

Most Americans and disaster-relief organizations view a fridge failure as an unfortunate inconvenience that amounts to a few hundred dollars of wasted groceries. In the Bush, this is not the case. Rural subsistence freezers are not analogues to an ice chest packed with bulk beef and chicken thighs from Costco. Instead, they are a cross between a larder and a checking account, an assurance you can eat well and not go broke trying to buy protein at the store. Relief money can purchase frozen steaks or boxes of fish sticks, but gone is the connection with the animal and the land that was built hunting, harvesting, butchering, drying, storing, sharing, planning for holiday feasts and wintertime soups, gone is the empowerment and pride of providing.

“That’s what our ancestors taught us: to gather and subsist, put away food,” Peterson said. “That’s what we grew up on.”

To lose whole freezers is to lose all the work that went into filling them, the friendships nurtured by bored chit chat in a bird blind, the lessons imparted to youngsters learning to pick fish from a salmon net.

Families in Golovin and all over the recovering coast are grappling with what they’ll eat and feed to their children now that spoilage has purged their pantries.

“We threw it to the dump before it got stink,” Peterson said.


Food insecurity extends beyond just this looming winter. The storm flooded, flattened, and carried off most people in Golovin’s subsistence camps, and with them went much of the means for self-sufficiently getting food from the land.

“One thing that’s affected just about everybody in the village is camps being destroyed. Fish racks, cabins, their subsistence equipment – if it wasn’t in town, it was out there,” said Sierra Smyth, who lives in Golovin and works as an aid to Sen. Olson.

“It’s devastating. People work for years. Those camps are generation-to-generation between families,” Smyth said.

That was where Donna Katchatag’s mind went when she awoke to no power in her home Saturday morning.

“Our first thought was our cabin,” said the mother of four.

Hers was one of 10 family camps obliterated in an area called Kitchaviq, about a 30-minute four-wheeler ride outside of town. There was a dilapidated old cabin on her family’s land that in recent years she and her husband, a skilled carpenter, gradually replaced with a new structure, raised 6 feet off the ground on posts and big enough to sleep up to 12 when friends from Unalakleet or Elim came to visit.

On the second day after the storm, when it was finally clear enough to see into the distance they spotted the building, still intact, but carried far away from where it was built.

“It took the posts with it,” Katchatag said. “We’re kinda relieved it’s not smashed.”

They could even make out some building scraps and a chainsaw they’d left on the porch still sitting there, but had not yet made it out to inspect the inside.

Katchatag was a frenetic flurry of activity Wednesday, moving supplies around the tribal hall, tidying up the kitchen, getting food ready, whatever task there was that might need doing.

“It’s like a distraction,” she said, pausing briefly. “I had a good cry about our camp. … It was like a release.”

On her phone she had pictures of the cabin in various states of construction and the family life that took place there. Collecting greens by the beach. A log food cache for storing dried salmon that’s now gone. In one video her husband stands in hip waders casting for silvers in a steam while her kids play on the bank, a faint rainbow behind them all.

“What we lose up there, that’s our source, where we go to produce, to gather. (It has) a lot of value. Not only sentimental, but where we go to thrive,” Katchatag said.

The donated pizzas, cantaloupes, bottled water and baby formula pouring in to Golovin and comparably wracked towns are helping alleviate immediate needs. But cleanup and rebuilding will take sustained support, some of it monetary, and not all of it glamorous, if communities are ever going to approach recovery.

“Brooms and mops, vacuums for those homes, because what they’re using is gonna need to be thrown away,” Katchatag said of what would help residents muck out the spilled fuel, silt, sewage, sand and trash from their properties.

Soon they’ll need plywood, lumber, insulation, and some understanding from the government aid apparatus that a second freezer isn’t a luxury in a place like Golovin, and a new boat motor not a recreational toy, but a piece of critical equipment for providing for one’s self and community.

“It feels really good to receive that,” Katchatag said of the donations filling up the tribal hall and church. “But where we go to gather, we’re wondering what to do. What we should do? Try to build it back stronger? Or relocate? Those are tough questions.”

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.