North Slope’s tribal organization asked for federal help with the response to the internet and cell outages that hurt several Arctic communities this summer after the fiber cable was damaged.
An undersea fiber optic line was severed by the sea ice on June 10, leading to outages in several communities, including North Slope’s Utqiagvik, Wainwright, Point Hope and Atqasuk. On Aug. 25, the Quintillion vessel arrived at the area of the break to start the repairs, but the estimate of how long the work might take was not yet available.
The Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope in June filed an emergency declaration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in light of the widespread service disruptions to “allow ICAS and its communities to restore basic communications capabilities significantly quicker,” the resolution said.
“We wanted to make sure that the declaration went forward,” ICAS’ Executive Director Morrie Lemen said. “There wasn’t a real ask, it was just to advise them that there probably will be some costs as things are coming along.”
FEMA denied ICAS’ emergency declaration on July 24, and ICAS appealed that decision a month later, on Aug. 23.
“Our tribes do have that government-to-government relationship with the federal government, and not only should it be respected but valued,” ICAS Secretary Doreen Leavitt said. “We wouldn’t ask for an emergency declaration if we didn’t feel that we needed it.”
Outages harmed public safety and health system in the Arctic
The outages affected everything from emergency response communications to conducting business in the villages, putting “at risk safety, health, energy and transportation in the affected communities,” according to ICAS emergency declaration.
“We look at it much like a hurricane and how it impacts communities,” Leavitt said. “Our communications outages are causing many cascading problems.”
In the first weeks after the outages, one of the biggest issues was how 911 services were affected, Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, previously told Arctic Sounder. While residents were able to dial 911, dispatchers in Utqiagvik were not able to dispatch police, fire and search and rescue responders because dispatch was operating through a wireless system, he explained. Since then, the borough sent their village emergency responders GCI phones, which maintained wireless service.
“This remains a temporary solution until the undersea cable is repaired,” ICAS officials said in the appeal document signed by ICAS President George Edwardson. “The emergency 911 system for the entire Arctic Slope was rendered useless for a significant period of time and still is operating from a diminished capability,”
Because of this disaster, ICAS has not had the ability to send public alerts and warning messages using their Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, the only such system in the region, for both tribes and non-tribal entities, according to the appeal.
“This not only places our communities further at risk of no-notice or foreseeable events, but it also prohibits us from being able to notify our members and communities about the actual status of this disaster and our transition to recovery,” the appeal document said.
In schools across the North Slope — which also serve as event and gathering spaces — employees had to be on-site to monitor fire alarms, fire suppression and security cameras, ICAS officials said.
Health services have also been limited because of the internet and cell outages. In Samuel Simmonds Hospital in Utqiagvik, managed and operated by the Arctic Slope Native Association, making appointments, dispatching health emergency responders, and transmitting CT scans to Anchorage has been a challenge, ICAS officials said.
When local grocery stores and ATM machines were unable to connect to the internet, families were also unable to access and use SNAP and EBT cards for nutritional assistance for these individuals and families, ICAS officials said.
The break happened the month when multiple communities on the North Slope celebrated Nalukatak, community whaling feasts, and coordinating those culturally crucial events was a challenge, Leavitt said.
The cost of restoring services
To restore connectivity, ICAS was among the organizations that needed to purchase, deliver and set up hardware and software for alternative communication devices — through providers like Starlink, GCI, ATT and Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative.
But most of the measures are temporary – and costly.
For example, ICAS spent $16,480, on emergency communications hardware and $11,000 on four months of Starlink subscriptions for government continuity. They also bought at least 20 GCI emergency telephones and needed to cly ICAS employees into several North Slope villages to connect and re-configure communication systems for tribal governments.
ASNA had to spend at least $200,000 to on Starlink communications systems, subscriptions and software for Samuel Simmonds Hospital and each village health clinic for basic emergency communications, according to ICAS. They also bought 48 FirstNet phones for on-call and emergency response providers.
The total expenditures for tribal organizations and entities working with ICAS were more than $600,000 and the estimate will “be significantly higher once communications are fully re-established and situational awareness increases,” according to ICAS.
“We expended much money just to have established minimal temporary communications that can support our way of life,” Leavitt said.
ICAS issued its first proclamation of emergency on June 15. Then the tribal government met on June 22 to reassess the situation, found that an emergency continued and extended the proclamation beyond June 30.
“Emergency proclamation is still active because we are still experiencing an ongoing disaster,” Leavitt said last week.
In late June, ICAS also filed an emergency declaration with FEMA — a declaration that authorizes the U.S. president to provide disaster assistance for up to $5 million for the protection of lives, property, public health and safety, or to lessen the threat of a catastrophe. Besides the governor of the affected state, federally recognized tribal governments have the option of requesting a declaration directly from the President.
Specifically, ICAS asked for public assistance in standard categories A and B, which stands for debris removal and emergency protective measures, as well as for the U.S. Coast Guard to provide icebreaking assistance during fiber cable repairs, Leavitt said. They also asked to waive the federal match requirement.
Lemen explained that the purpose of the request was to file the emergency with FEMA and ensure the future ability to request help.
“There was really no real ask at this time,” Lemen said. “We wanted to make sure that we were covered as far as moving forward because we had costs. When we lost the internet, we lost our ability to operate our business, and then there was a lot of cultural impact to it too.”
FEMA denied ICAS’ request on July 24.
“Based on our review of all of the information available, it has been determined that supplemental federal assistance under the Stafford Act is not warranted for this event,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a letter to ICAS.
ICAS submitted an appeal of the decision, Leavitt said, elaborating on the costs and cultural impacts the outages have been causing in the communities in the past months.
“Our hope is that FEMA and the President can understand that a disaster for the Inupiat people of the North Slope and the Arctic residents – it doesn’t look like other natural disasters,” Leavitt said. “But the impacts are real and do affect our communications, our public safety, our already limited health care and our economy.”