State, Red Cross visit Savoonga to assess storm damage

Damage in the Alaska community of Savoonga, battered by a series of harsh Bering Sea storms in the final days of 2016, is still being tallied by state and Red Cross officials who visited the Bering Sea village last weekend.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that two emergency managers sent to Savoonga had gathered a set of "ballpark" estimates for damage in the community. Local officials had issued a verbal disaster declaration to the state, after hurricane-force winds tore into numerous buildings in the St. Lawrence Island community.

"We've seen that about 60 structures were affected," Zidek said. "A lot of the damage we've seen is homes being pushed off their foundations by the high winds."

City officials declined comment for this story Tuesday.

A series of three northern Alaska storms began the night of Dec. 28 and continued to hammer Savoonga through New Year's Day. Residents said the storms ripped roofs from homes, sent debris flying through windows and cut out communications.

[ Winter storm in Savoonga draws experts in weather, emergencies ]

Red Cross of Alaska staff also spent the weekend in Savoonga, assessing homes damaged by successive winter storms. The assessors opened 23 financial-aid cases and helped 127 people, according to the Red Cross. All of the cases involved damaged homes.


A total of 22 homes suffered damage categorized as "major," which means the dwellings need costly repairs, the Red Cross said.

"Those homes had a significant amount of damage — most likely they're technically unlivable, but many people are still living in the houses," said Lisa Miller, a Red Cross of Alaska spokeswoman.

A single home was categorized as "destroyed," meaning the winter storms toppled the structure and left none of its walls standing, according to the Red Cross.

Despite the extensive damage, Zidek said everyone in Savoonga — including the owner of the destroyed home — has been able to stay with someone else or remain in their own housing.

The state assessment found that food stocks at the local store were low after the storms' passage, and Zidek said some items for small children need to be replenished. The town's subsistence whaling crews received a weekend boon during the state officials' visit, however: a bowhead whale.

"The last day they were there, Savoonga landed a whale, so the community transitioned into food-harvesting mode," Zidek said. "There was plenty of muktuk to be had."

For the time being, the Red Cross has provided financial assistance in all 23 of its cases by way of money cards. The cards are intended for immediate needs, like socks, groceries and temporary lodging, Miller said.

However, the locals' homes require the replacement of siding, roofing and insulation to homes. Red Cross officials plan to work with other volunteer organization to support those efforts.

Currently, only the Red Cross and the state are involved in the assistance, Miller said.

Zidek said Gov. Bill Walker and his cabinet should receive the division's full report on the situation in Savoonga next week, for an evaluation of whether to declare a state disaster in response.

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.