Rural Alaska

Storm repairs move ahead in Western Alaska as freeze-up closes in

Two weekends ago, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok slammed into Western Alaska’s coastline in a storm path described as a “near worst case scenario” for flooding and damage to the region. In the days since, residents, government agencies, tribes and volunteers all scrambled in a race to fix as much as they can before winter.

It’s the largest emergency response operation off Alaska’s road system in the last 15 years, and even amid a well-executed recovery effort, the outstanding needs are enormous.

“Our region is in crisis and our people are suffering,” said Vivian Korthuis, CEO of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a regional nonprofit representing 56 tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

A comprehensive assessment of damage across the enormous region is ongoing, but so far the Association of Village Council Presidents and partner agencies have tallied 10 houses lost, dozens of people still out of their homes and a massive loss of subsistence equipment and camps.

“We are receiving reports of massive shoreline erosion along the Bering Sea coast. We are also seeing continued sanitation issues including clean drinking water and sewage issues,” Korthuis said.

Joint Task Force-Alaska works storm recovery efforts in Golovin, Alaska for Operation Merbok Response

“The tragic results of this storm are heartbreaking,” Korthuis said. In Nunam Iqua, at the mouth of the Yukon River, “seven caskets were unearthed, moved by the storm waters, and are lodged against a boardwalk in town. We anticipate that other burial sites along the Bering Sea coast will also need attention.”

Further south, the community of Chevak was especially hard hit, losing more than 90 boats that are critical for subsistence harvesting. An estimated 1,000 gallons of petroleum products spilled along the town’s beach, according the U.S. Coast Guard, with cleanup almost finished as of Wednesday. According to AVCP, at least 13 families are still displaced in Chevak.

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“The people in our region live day in and day out without a lifeline,” Korthuis said. “All the local emergency response at the community level are volunteers. We need federal assistance to fund tribal search and rescue to teams which could respond to emergencies like this past storm and countless others at the community level.”

Service members in Joint Task Force - Bethel assist the community of Chevak, Alaska in storm recovery efforts for Operation Merbok Response

That’s a policy approach shared by Chevak’s Earl Atchak, a subsistence hunter and member of Chevak’s search and rescue group.

“Our people are exhausted from the volunteering,” Atchak said. “Chevak is (still) in a state of emergency.”

While he appreciates the help that’s come in from the Guard and outside agencies, the extent of damage necessitates cleanup efforts that will stretch on for weeks and months, long after visiting teams of damage assessors and volunteers have left. Atchak thinks the best thing to do is funnel resources to local work crews in the form of wages and equipment so they can keep working on repairs.

“We can’t depend on somebody who has never lived here before to solve this problem,” Atchak said.

One of his biggest concerns is the massive amount of debris and driftwood scattered across the tundra outside of Chevak, where visiting aid workers have not really gotten out to observe. Once the land freezes, all those logs and stumps could prove a lethal hazard along the snowmachine trails heading in and out of town.

“There is going to be a really bad accident this wintertime if this is not addressed,” Atchak said.

An aerial shot of Chevak, Alaska, taken during an observation overflight

While food donations have poured in to help families cope with huge quantities of subsistence foods lost to spoilage after power failures, Atchak says the charity is a poor substitute.

“The subsistence foods cannot be replaced,” he said. “Eight months’ collection of Eskimo food: fish, herring, seal oil, seal meat, moose, you name it, all the greens. Some of these people lost how many freezers because the lights were out?”

Much of the most pressing work for state emergency responders and locals alike is rebuilding some kind of protective mitigation infrastructure in places that lost it. Merbok wiped out all sorts of dunes, berms and seawalls that help buffer townsites from the fall storms that regularly arrive before sea ice freezes up the shoreline.

In Hooper Bay, rows of natural sand dunes that have long helped shield the community were obliterated.

“First parts of dunes closest to the water are gone ... maybe 30 to 40% of it,” said Hooper Bay Tribal Chief Edgar Tall. “And the next batch of storms will wash that away.”

The scramble to reestablish fortifications is happening with a lot of coordination among partner groups. The state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is working with regional nonprofit Kawerak to get materials into Shaktoolik to rebuild a berm made of earthen materials and driftwood. The Alaska National Guard is aiming to get 5,000 sand bags to residents in Koyuk to buffer the shore by its downtown.

Alaska National Guardsmen clear storm debris for Operation Merbok Response

For all the havoc delivered by the storm, residents and response entities have shown resilience coping with the extensive damage. Those closest to recovery operations credit effectiveness of speedy repair efforts to significant planning, ongoing relationship-building initiatives and an outpouring of goodwill.

“It’s been a very positive thing to have outside people come on in to help with the cleanup, to help with the restoration,” said state Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, whose district includes many of the communities hit hardest by the storm. His own home in Golovin was severely flooded.

The community has received a number of visitors, from church groups and guardsmen to the governor and federal officials, including U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska; and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Deanne Criswell. All of which, Olson said, has helped elevate the community’s needs and kept the elaborate recovery process moving steadily forward.

“I think we have done as good as we can under the circumstances,” Olson said. “Gov. Dunleavy has stepped up to the plate and essentially petitioned President Joe Biden to declare a disaster. And I think that’s been effective.”

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On Thursday, the White House announced it would waive all local cost-share contributions and cover the full cost of the disaster response — something Alaska’s congressional delegation and Dunleavy administration pushed for — for the first 30 days.

Joint Task Force-Alaska works storm recovery efforts in Golovin, Alaska for Operation Merbok Response

Though nobody suggests a full recovery is anywhere close at hand, according to those on the ground as well as those coordinating operations, operations are going well, given the extent of the storm’s destruction.

“We’re still going full bore,” said Bryan Fisher, director of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “On the recovery side, we are really focused on getting the construction materials out into the communities to re-elevate or jack up homes, replace wet plywood and insulation.”

Gov. Dunleavy Western Alaska Storm press conference

Much of the work on the ground has been carried out by the 160 members of the Alaska National Guard lending a hand to locals. The majority of the guardsmen have been stationed in Western Alaska since shortly after the storm hit. Though they’re primarily based in the hubs of Bethel and Nome, many have stayed in the small communities they were assisting, bunking in community buildings and sharing food with residents after working alongside one another on long shifts removing debris, mucking out homes and repairing buildings.

“Our way of giving thanks is to provide them with hot meals, providing them with lodging,” said Irene Navarro, president of the tribe in Golovin. She called the dozen or so guardsmen who stayed at the tribal hall for nearly a week “very, very helpful.”

“They’ve been cleaning all the debris. Some have expertise in electrical work or carpentry or boiler maintenance. They’ve been helping members in our community with little household chores when they can,” Navarro said.

Joint Task Force-Alaska works storm recovery efforts in Golovin, Alaska for Operation Merbok Response

Guardsmen took cues from local residents on where their assistance was most urgently needed — for example, repairing machines in the washeteria and cleaning up the post office so package delivery could quickly resume.

Tuesday night, the community threw a goodbye driftwood bonfire as a “see ya later celebration” for the guardsmen, Navarro said.

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In Bethel, a local hunter donated moose meat to guardsmen who used it in a stew at the armory last week, Days later, residents put on a workshop on traditional Yup’ik dance, inviting guardsmen up to learn.

Those kinds of connections are part of a longer-standing policy initiative from Alaska National Guard leadership emphasizing “Alaskans helping Alaskans.”

“The No. 1 objective we have is cultivating relationships,” said Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, adjutant general for the Alaska National Guard and a longtime proponent of increasing the organization’s presence in rural Alaska.

According to Saxe, the Guard was able to quickly and effectively get boots on the ground in 22 communities, many of them among the state’s most remote, because in recent years its made rural operations and community connections a priority, even without any disaster or emergency to respond to.

“The fact is, we have been out there getting to know the people ahead of time, and we want to continue doing exactly that,” Saxe said.

That’s meant not only a degree of familiarity and cultural literacy among guardsmen who often have relatively little experience with Western Alaska, but also an operational advantage: Helicopter pilots better understand the environment, personnel know which local leaders to contact, logistics planners know which materials are most likely to be in short supply.

As of Friday the Guard was still using cargo planes to fly thousands of pounds of food, supplies and building materials out to communities from its headquarters at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

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Zachariah Hughes

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

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