As storm-battered Western Alaska takes stock of damage and begins cleanup, officials pledge help
Anchorage Daily News, Alaska September 20, 2022
NOME, Alaska (Tribune News Service) — Up and down Alaska’s Bering Sea coast, the scope of destruction left by a historic storm is becoming clear.
The remnants of a Pacific typhoon pummeled roughly 1,000 miles of Western Alaska coastline over the weekend, damaging infrastructure and homes. The storm shredded sea walls, compromised drinking water systems, ripped homes from their foundation, deluged streets in Nome with sea water and left houses filled with silt.
No casualties have been reported in the storm or its aftermath. A boy, missing in Hooper Bay as the storm raged, was later found safe. Otherwise, there didn’t appear to be any reports of people still missing.
By Monday, as the storm passed, residents in dozens of remote Alaska communities with a combined population of more than 20,000 continued assessing the full extent of the damage and began cleaning up.
Residents, along with local, state and federal government officials, say they will need to work quickly to repair what’s broken. There’s not much time left before winter freeze-up in much of the region.
“We just have to impress upon our federal friends that it’s not a Florida situation where we’ve got months to work on this,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Sunday. “We’ve got several weeks.”
On Monday, the governor said the assessment work is being completed to file a federal disaster declaration request, which is expected to be submitted Tuesday. If approved, the federal government would cover up to 75% of eligible disaster costs.
Reports of damage
The state identified five communities — Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Golovin, Newtok and Nome — as being greatly impacted by a combination of high water, flooding, erosion and electrical issues. Nome, where one vacant home being used for storage floated down a river until it was caught by a bridge, was among the many reporting road damage after recording tidal surges 11.1 feet above normal.
State officials were looking closely at those five communities but also reaching out to every community in the region because of the numerous reports of damage, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Efforts to reach some communities have been difficult due to downed communication lines, he said.
Dunleavy was able to fly over Chevak and get on the ground to tour Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay for several hours on Monday with two of his commissioners. He said there were two houses off their foundations in Hooper Bay, and there was road and erosion damage, but the communities he visited were reopening and cleaning up after the weekend’s storms and flooding.
“The damage was not as severe as was first thought,” Dunleavy said. “There are certainly things that need to be worked on, but things seem to be getting up and functioning in the villages that we were in today.”
Dunleavy is planning to head north from Bethel Tuesday to visit Norton Sound communities like Golovin and Newtok where he is expecting to see more severe erosion damage caused by the storm. He is also planning to head to Nome.
Bryan Fisher, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said Monday evening the agency has received reports of 63 homes damaged across the path of the storm, and a dozen other types of structures that have also been damaged, including commercial buildings, fish camps and cabins, but those numbers are expected to rise as more reports are received. There is a greatly varying degree of damage reported to homes, from those that were completely blown or floated off their foundations to more minor wind damage to roofs and siding, Fisher said.
Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, who leads the Alaska National Guard, traveled with Dunleavy Monday. He said that 20 State Defense Force members had been activated and at least 40 guardsmen would also be activated to help with the recovery process, some would be heading to Hooper Bay.
“As information comes in, we will get the troops to where they need to go, here at the hubs, and getting to the smaller communities,” Saxe said from Bethel. “That’s what we’re going to do over the next week or so.”
The Department of Transportation said it had surveyed damage to state-owned runways, roads and other infrastructure. The road to Shishmaref’s landfill was damaged, said spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.
Transportation Commissioner Ryan Anderson said all state runways are operating in Western Alaska, but a couple, such as in Shaktoolik and Golovin, still need their runway lights to be replaced. There are also reports of outages of some Federal Aviation Administration equipment across the region that will need to be looked at, Anderson said.
The east end of Nome’s Front Street is torn apart, and on Monday, businesses were cleaning out muck left by the floodwaters in front of bars, restaurants and other businesses, some of which were still boarded up. Further east, a portion of the Nome-Council Road is completely ruined, a small bridge rendered barely navigable and a new hole entirely punched through the thin barrier island separating Safety Sound from the ocean.
“It’s bad out that way,” said Bryant Hammond, the incident commander for Nome’s emergency operations center.
A small number of miners and seasonal residents who stay on the far side of the washed-out section will have to rely on airplanes or other creative transportation solutions to transit back into town.
“We either build a new bridge or get ferry service,” Hammond said.
Many of the small seasonal camps and cabins used for subsistence by Nome residents are badly damaged, flattened or gone entirely, according to Hammond.
Most state-owned airstrips remained relatively unscathed after workers removed debris left by high tides. Shaktoolik’s runway lights are broken, but it’s not clear how extensive the problem is, McCarthy said.
Telecommunication coverage was inconsistent on Sunday in many communities. By Monday, service had largely been restored to impacted areas, said GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside.
Intermittent outages continued in Hooper Bay, Shaktoolik, Stebbins and St. George, mainly because of power outages or flooding that impacted equipment in homes, she said.
Problems persisted in Elim and Golovin, where Handyside said stations were damaged by flooding. Mobile and internet services still were impacted in those villages on Monday, she said, but the company was working to restore services.
The American Red Cross has 50 volunteers ready to help and will be sent to communities that are most in need. The Red Cross was preparing to send small teams to Bethel and Nome, and then on to smaller villages hit by the storm to survey damage as soon as Monday night, said spokeswoman Taylar Sausen.
“We’re going to figure out where we are needed and what each community needs from us,” Sausen said.
Most support personnel will have to be flown to these communities since there are few roads in Western Alaska. Air support will be provided by the Alaska National Guard, small commuter airlines that routinely fly between these small villages and possibly bush pilots.
On Monday, each community hit by the storm was dealing with its own set of issues.
Flooded in Golovin
At least three homes in Golovin were pulled loose from their foundations and floated during the storm, said Susan Nedza, chief school administrator for Bering Strait School District.
Other dwellings that flooded were left with sheets of sand, silt and debris on Monday after waters had receded.
The school and clinic were still surrounded by water on Monday, Nedza said. The school’s dry food supply was destroyed because the windows and doors broke during the storm, she said. Nedza said some portions of town had power, while others were still without on Monday. She said on Monday they were trying to get a generator going to save the frozen food for the school.
Alice Amaktoolik spent the weekend with her sister, Harriett Henry, in Nome. Henry gave birth to her first child, a girl, on Friday. On Saturday, the sisters learned that Henry’s home in Golovin was significantly damaged by floodwaters.
When Henry purchased her Golovin home it was in rough condition and not safe to live in, her sister said. During the last few years she had restored it with her family, recently purchasing new appliances and furniture.
“When it flooded there was 3, maybe 4 feet of water in her house,” Amaktoolik said. “So she’s got to replace all her appliances, her bedding, everything. And she just had a baby on Friday.”
Henry plans to fly home to Golovin on Wednesday with her baby, Amaktoolik said, but she will live with family until she’s able to clean her home and make it livable again.
“It’s just been overwhelming,” Amaktoolik said. “We’re all excited to have the baby, but now we’re kind of just here trying to figure out how we’re going to get her house back into living conditions before anything else ruins in the house. And we just have to figure out financially how we’re going to keep up with all of that.”
In Hooper Bay, relief and worry
Photos and video out of Hooper Bay, one of the largest communities on the coast with a population of more than 1,300, showed buildings inundated by the ocean. More than 300 people sought shelter at the Hooper Bay School over the weekend, said Gene Stone, superintendent with the Lower Yukon School District. Residents banded together to serve about 1,000 meals to the community. On Sunday night, moose stew was on the menu.
As dire as the weekend conditions were, by Monday local leaders said infrastructure had mostly been spared. A handful of homes had been wrenched from their foundations or otherwise damaged as to be uninhabitable, said Edgar Tall, a tribal administrator. Elders there have described the storm as the worst in their memories, he said.
The airport runway was operable, the electricity was on and the water system seemed to be functioning as of Monday afternoon, Stone said.
Tall, the tribal administrator, said he wasn’t surprised the community had largely come through the storm without serious infrastructure damage.
“This town’s been here for centuries,” he said.
The storm pounded dunes along the shoreline of Hooper Bay, peeling away sand. “You can see our dunes are practically gone,” wrote Bradley Lake on Facebook alongside a video of the erosion damage.
Damage wrought by the storm is “a good example of how erosion proceeds at all-time scales,” said Rick Thoman, a climate scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Dunes in the area, a protection from wave damage from other ocean storms, had been eroding for a long time but sustained “massive loss” during the storm, likely made worse by the fact that the ground is not yet frozen, he said.
The governor’s office said it was working with the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to request a federal disaster declaration as early as Tuesday. A federal disaster declaration can only be approved by the president, but state officials hope that will be considered on an expedited basis.
Zidek, the spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said if that request is granted, it would be essential for the longer-term recovery process in the region, including with establishing individual and public assistance programs. A federal disaster declaration would also mean the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency would enter into a cost-sharing agreement, with FEMA paying at least 75% of eligible costs, which would “significantly reduce the overall cost of the recovery effort,” Zidek said.
He said Monday afternoon that priorities on the ground are changing rapidly as assessments of the storm damage are made. The focus is on providing basic needs for villages hardest hit by the remnants of the typhoon such as food, water, shelter and access to medical care.
State agencies had been preparing for the storm. When Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration Saturday morning, Zidek said it provided access to the state’s disaster relief fund.
“This will enable us to support local and tribal governments’ ongoing response,” Zidek said by email. “The focus is on the critical life, health and safety needs of those impacted. Our goal is to support the local and tribal emergency response effort with regional and state resources because it is the fastest way we can help the people in need.”
When the governor issues a state disaster declaration, state law caps spending to $1 million, but Dunleavy can write a letter to the Legislature to request additional funds. Zidek said multiple Alaska agencies were ready Saturday with resources and funding to respond.
A state emergency management specialist will head to Bethel on Tuesday, working with three members of the American Red Cross. The plan is for them to visit impacted communities, as needed, to identify and assess emergency needs.
‘When everything goes wrong’
Warmer ocean temperatures allowed Typhoon Merbak to brew in an area of the Pacific Ocean that doesn’t usually produce typhoons, said Thoman, the climate scientist.
“This is a clear signal of our changing environment,” Thoman said. “We had a typhoon form much closer to Alaska in an area where they historically have very rarely formed and the atmospheric (conditions) allowed it a direct hit into Alaska.”
Conditions aligned for the storm to hit Alaska’s coast dead-on, he said. It won’t be the last time.
“Chances are, as oceans continue to warm we will see more typhoons in this area,” Thoman said.
“When everything goes wrong, these really extreme events can happen,” he said. “And no one is immune to it.”
Hughes reported from Nome, Theriault Boots and Williams from Anchorage and Maguire from Juneau. Information from the Associated Press was also used to this report.
(c)2022 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)
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