Regional communities hammered by ex-typhoon Merbok
By Peter Loewi
Villages around Norton Sound were hard hit by the massive storm raging through western Alaska over the weekend. As the wind subsided and water levels fell by Monday, residents began to return to their homes and assess the damages. Not all communities could be reached by The Nome Nugget. Phonelines in Elim, Golovin and White Mountain appeared to be down.
No deaths were reported as of press time on Tuesday, and while many say they were OK in this storm, everyone feared the next one even more.
City Administrator Daisy Lockwood-Katcheak had been in touch with villages further south and used those experiences to time Stebbins’ emergency actions. At around 2 a.m. on Saturday, 40 minutes after the storm hit Kotlik, Stebbins residents were evacuating. With water coming from pretty much everywhere, roads to shelters and to Saint Michael were cut off. Many, Lockwood-Katcheak said, were unable to reach the shelter at the school, and two other buildings were set up emergency shelters, one at the IRA and one at the Native Corporation. Roughly 40 percent of the village evacuated, she said.
With the water came huge quantities of sand, pushing houses off their foundations and displaced eight to 10 families. Streets in all areas of town are damaged, and power poles running from Stebbins to Saint Michael are all leaning. Both Lockwood-Katcheak and Virginia Washington in Saint Michael feared that the next bout of strong winds would blow them over, taking out power from their shared AVEC facility.
Thankfully, Lockwood-Katcheak said, there was no problem with access to the honey bucket lagoon, and there appears to be no mixing of untreated sewage and flood waters. One unique headache they were faced with, however, was two young grizzly bears were chasing people as they evacuated. Nobody knew where they came from, but they are thought to have washed up in the storm. Residents also saw houses floating offshore past the village, though not from the village.
Stebbins declared a disaster and hopes to be receiving assistance from the state soon. Like many villages in the region, they have been in touch with FEMA, as well.
Stebbins did have community meetings to prepare for the storm. “The community came together in the disastrous event. Overall, we’d like to extend thanks and gratitude to the school for housing our elders, children, and mamas,” Lockwood-Katcheak said. Additionally, she noted, the Native Corporation donated food to the shelters, and city employees donated time to ensure that everyone was accounted for.
“Right now, we are busy trying to find ways to drain out our communities.”
Up the washed-out BIA road connecting Stebbins to St. Michael, City Administrator and Incident Commander for Emergency Response Plan Virginia Washington was juggling phone calls and dealing with serious erosion. She had just gotten out of a teleconference with Kawerak and was preparing for a meeting the next morning with the IRA and the Native Corporation to discuss the village’s SCERP, Small Community Emergency Response Plan.
Ten homes, she said, were in danger of falling into the bay, and many more will need to be renovated. One road was washed out, but residents were still able to access the fuel stand by driving across the tundra. Saint Michael, however, has no heavy equipment to for this kind of clean-up work.
Washington was the only City Administrator interviewed who discussed some of the more bureaucratic issues that Cities and Tribes were facing. Saint Michael has several homes through the Indian Health Service’s Housing Improvement Program, including some renovations. There are, however, eligibility requirements such as date since last receipt of funds to get money for renovations. Since these would prevent Saint Michael from rebuilding with those same funds, Washington said that they are calling for Tribal self-governance rule-making rules to change those requirements in the face of rebuilding to a higher level of preparation.
“We are doing alright,” Mayor Thomas Simonsson said on Monday after the storm, sounding exhausted. “We saw major damage to fortifications on the ocean side, all along the shoreline,” he continued. Simonsson listed off damages: Erosion on the road to the tank farm, the road to the water source is basically gone, damage to the power grid, and the backup generator at the pump house got cut, resulting in a total loss of pressure in the clean water tanks. “We have to secure our water supply,” which was down to six feet on Monday, he said. Even with major conservation efforts, the town uses around one foot per day. On Tuesday afternoon, the city posted on social media that “Consultants from NSHC’s CUAP program recommend to build quantity in the tank ahead of colder months instead of focusing on getting off boil water notice which would possibly drain the tank to dangerously low levels with no promise of successful results given the fragile infrastructure at the moment.”
Simonsson explained that community leaders got wiser and wiser with experience, and after the 2011 storm, built up the roads, preparing for what would have been a record high 10-foot storm surge. This time, the surge hit 13 feet, and on Saturday afternoon, many people across the region received an emergency alert on their phone saying Unalakleet residents were to evacuate.
The phone alerts scared some people outside of the community, but Simonsson gave credit to past leadership for setting up a good community response plan. He had communicated with both Senator Dan Sullivan and Senator Lisa Murkowski, with FEMA and with GCI. It took some calling in circles, but it got went off as needed, and the evacuation order was rescinded around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.
Their response plan is more than just text alerts, and everyone took their roles as anticipated, including evacuating elders and families to the school or the elder facility up the hill. Power up the hill was cut off, but the facility has its own generator. The school had over 200 air mattresses ready. It was great, he said, to see the community step up and take it seriously. “If it weren’t for past leadership, we’d be much worse off,” Simonsson said.
John Henry is the Deputy Director at the Native Village of Unalakleet and has been a key part of the Unalakleet Drone program, which can map coastal erosion and support in disaster management, among other things. The Unalakleet Response Group has given him a list of areas for damage assessment by drone, which includes the entire coastline and the road from the bridge east. The barge access road is also an active construction road.
Henry also noted that while the airport runways are functional, the FAA AWOS is down, and the FAA is sending someone to look at it.
“The next one will come,” Simonsson said. “It always does.”
“Everyone’s OK, but that was a very scary storm,” City Clerk Isabelle Jackson said. “We have no more front berm. It took it all.”
There was little serious damage in this storm thanks to the preparations – and to the seawall. Jackson said that there was little to no damage to homes in town, but many had debris washing up into them. The lights at the airport were damaged during the storm but have since been repaired.
While power and water were spared, there was practically nothing in the store on Monday. There was also a concern about access to drinking water, because a few more feet of water would have knocked out the access road, turning the community into an island. “It was so close,” she said. “We have miles to run to higher ground, and it was all water. We couldn’t see no land.”
Shaktoolik has a SCERP, a small community response plan, and Jackson said that people did what they were supposed to. At 5 a.m. on Saturday, everyone evacuated to the school.
Unlike other communities in the region, Shaktoolik does have some heavy equipment, and the city, IRA and Native Corporation are working together to clear debris.
As of Monday, Jackson expected state and FEMA officials to visit soon. “We’re afraid of any new storms now, that berm saved us, but we don’t have nothing now.”
Vice Mayor Robert Hannon seemed remarkably calm when he was reached on Monday morning. Some houses moved, he said, but everyone is safe. A few roads were washed out, one house was off its foundation, there was some damage to the foundation of the store warehouse. The one diesel spill in town was already getting help. The power that was lost to six houses had already been restored. Utility workers had sandbagged the manholes, preventing the worst of the flooding.
There were minor issues, like the internet being out at the store so people couldn’t pay with cards, but their biggest issue as of Monday, he said, was the lack of working heavy equipment. NSEDC has a front loader in town, and they are helping.
People tried to be prepared, he said, and the town came together pretty quick to clear the debris.
Alaska State Senator Donny Olson was reached by phone Tuesday afternoon. “Everybody is safe. No injuries. Nobody got hurt,” he reported. He shared that there had been a fair amount of damage in low lying areas, and many families evacuated up to the community center. Electricity was turned off in those areas, and was only restored on Monday, two days later. As of Tuesday afternoon, the bay water had gone back down, but parts of town were still flooded.
Everyone, he said, was still in the process of cleaning up. Impacted buildings got as much as four feet of water damage, and all that sand now needs to be shoveled out. To be made livable again, other assessments, such as mold prevention, must also be conducted. Olson said that he had heard, but not seen first-hand, that there might be an issue with sewage in these areas mixing with the flood waters, which could further impact public health.
After some calling around, they received the authority to use the loader at the airport to help move some of the eight buildings which had floated off their foundations towards higher ground, resulting in a number of roads getting blocked off.
Another difficulty Golovin faces is that teacher housing was severely impacted, with two people totally displaced, and another eight temporarily displaced. Bering Strait School District sent a plane with manpower and supplies to assist the community.
Olson said that he is working on getting the State Emergency Operations Center to visit, and said he was expecting the Governor in with the National Guard Tuesday evening.
“We’re good. Teller was the breaking point in the storm. It hit us but not as bad as expected,” said Mayor Makitta Blanche Garnie.
There was some damage, mostly in the form of erosion, and permafrost is showing behind the Teller graveyard. The seawall took extensive damage, and the rocks holding up the fencing are mostly gone. There was, however, minimal erosion to the road out of town, and several elders, a couple of teachers and two people from a church group evacuated to Nome.
Most of town evacuated to New Site Friday after work, and everyone came back as early as Sunday morning, Garnie said. Those who stayed, mostly in the new housing, the city office or the school’s housing, were safe.
City Clerk Bertha Barr said proudly that Brevig was prepared. “We were ready,” she said. The village had minor flooding, but no houses were damaged and no roofs blew off. Brevig got the tail end of the storm, and some people evacuated to the multipurpose building, they were warm and had food. A couple of boats and cabins were lost along the shore between Teller and Brevig.
Stanley Oxereok went door to door doing damage assessments after the storm. “Everybody is OK. We had a little bit of damage, siding on a couple of houses, but nobody was hurt,” he said. There was minor flooding and debris on the beach, and wind damage to a couple of houses. “That’s pretty much it,” he said.
“We’ve been lucky, but we’re gonna run out of luck one of these times,” Stan Tocktoo at Incident Command said.
During this storm, the winds were coming from the south, and “the dangers are on the northwest side,” he said, where coastal erosion is always a major concern. No properties were lost during this storm.
Tocktoo explained that evacuation paperwork was prepared, and while the tide came up “pretty high,” evacuation wasn’t necessary. Prior to the storm, there was a community-wide meeting, prepared by the IRA, the city and the Native Corporation. As part of the preparation, a buddy system was implemented, and teams of two to three people watched throughout the community.
“Everyone came and did their part,” he said.
Emily Apassingok was cheery when she picked up the phone at the City. “Everybody’s OK,” she said. “A boat got crushed up like a pop can.”
Gambell was in the eye of the storm when Merbok was at its worst, and was mostly spared because of it. There were “gigantic” waves off West Beach, but the town was spared even power outages. Like many communities, however, cabins outside of town – in Gambell’s case to the south – were moved by the rising water. Apassingok said there were reports of broken doors and windows and lots of sand inside.
“Nothing at all. It just rained quite a bit,” Native Village President Ben Pungowiyi said when asked about damage. “We got lucky and spared.”
Frances Ozenna, incident commander for the Small Community Emergency Response Plan, was candid. Diomede’s OK, she said, and advised this reporter to focus more on the villages that got hit harder. “We feel for them.”
Diomede was anticipating a big storm, but it came from the east. “So, our mountain saved us,” Ozenna said. There was damage to the seawall, and the biggest issue now is preparing for the next storm.
Another issue was that the Connex with equipment and furniture for the new clinic was washed away at 1:12 a.m. It ended up half a mile down the coast. The Connex only arrived earlier that week, and the issue could have been avoided if the contractor had spent another 10 minutes moving it eight feet higher, she said. It was still locked, and nobody knew the state of the contents, but she had sent pictures to both Norton Sound Health Corporation and to the contractor.
“We were ready,” she said. There was a community meeting on Thursday pre-storm, and people started to hunker down. On Friday they hauled water and shopped. Critical workers – healthcare, power, fuel, and equipment operators – had their duties, and the school was involved. Normally there are 20 beds, but with other shelters, around 30-36 beds total were prepared. “We have learned from many past experiences,” Ozenna said.
Diomede has a strong SCERP, and Ozenna hopes that other villages will incorporate them, too, saying that while they take time and leadership to prepare, they’re worth it. “Reacting first saves,” she said. Both money and lives.