On Sunday, after the remnants of Typhoon Merbok pummeled western Alaska with storm surges and gusting winds, residents living along more than 1,000 miles of coastline — many of them in the state’s most vulnerable communities — faced varying degrees of flooding and infrastructure damage. And there were concerns about the long-term impact and how they would recover as the colder months approach.
Across the region, “hub” communities such as Nome, Kotzebue and Unalakleet, nearly 400 miles northwest of Anchorage, as well as the smaller, roadless villages connected by them, were still feeling the pain of inundated streets and homes, power outages and airport runways underwater. Similar stories were playing out in at least a dozen other remote villages in Alaska, where the population is predominantly Indigenous.
For many, the storm could not have come at a worse time. Mid-September is prime hunting season, and most rural residents rely on hunting to stock their freezers with moose and caribou for the winter.
Reports of damaged and upturned fuel tanks were also concerning because those tanks hold the diesel fuel that powers local generators and heats homes. The tanks also hold the gasoline that fuels vehicles used in the hunting for subsistence: four-wheelers, boats and snowmobiles.
In some cases, cabins people use during the fishing season, as well as drying racks and smokehouses, have been destroyed.
Melanie Bahnke, president of Kawerak, a Nome-based regional consortium that serves 20 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, drew a comparison for non-Alaskans.
“Imagine if New York’s airport was completely wiped out, and there was no other way in or out,” she said. “Imagine if you no longer had a way to get to the grocery store.”
Bahnke on Sunday called on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to move beyond a state disaster declaration, which he issued Saturday. She said a federal disaster declaration from the Biden administration would release the level of funds that may be required for reconstruction.
The disaster recovery process in Alaska will be unlike anything that would play out in the Lower 48 states.
“In areas where hurricanes happen, FEMA provides temporary structures,” said Rhonda Schneider, the director of Nome’s Community Center, which runs an emergency shelter and operates a homelessness prevention program. It would be impossible to transport mobile homes and temporary trailers to remote Alaska, where villages are serviceable only by air or barge.
Just about every community affected by the storm was already facing a housing and infrastructure crisis. Schneider said that damage to housing across western Alaska will further stretch thin resources. On average, she said, the number of people living in a single 900-square-foot home in any village can be as high as 15.
“We know we are about 500 homes short in our region,” she said. In winter, she said, Nome’s community center houses around 200 individuals in its shelter. Roughly 3,700 people live year-round in the city.
Bahnke said damage from the storm could also affect medical care. Most communities have only a local clinic, so many residents have to fly to Anchorage to seek treatment, she said.
Fall is also when barges stop delivering goods and supplies to Alaska’s coastal communities. During the summer months, barges from Seattle carry construction equipment and other supplies to roadless communities. But the season is short, in large part because fall storms make the Bering and Chukchi seas difficult to navigate. Any immediate reconstruction efforts are likely to be hampered because the first signs of oncoming winter freeze are just weeks away.
In a news conference Saturday night, Dunleavy said Alaska was a state that deals with natural disasters on a regular basis, and he expressed confidence in its response capabilities. However, he also cited a long list of federal agencies that will be required as recovery begins, including the U.S. military and FEMA.
According to the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, phone conversations about recovery efforts would start Monday, only after community leaders had time to take stock of damage. Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the agency, said Dunleavy had not submitted a formal request for a federal disaster declaration. Later in the day, however, the governor said he was preparing to ask for that.