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Joaqlin Estus
ICT

Local, regional, and state resources have been deployed to more than a dozen villages damaged by the remnants of the typhoon Merbok in western and northwestern Alaska.

The storm brought high winds, storm surges, erosion and flooding along more than a thousand miles of coastline, about the same distance as from Nebraska to San Francisco.

Over the weekend, residents of at least six communities in western Alaska took refuge in village school buildings. As KYUK’s Will McCarthy reports, “Classrooms turned into bedrooms, gyms into informal dining halls. Now, those same classrooms are filled with students again. Schools are already returning to instruction, even as staff begin to clean up and take stock of damages.

Kimberly Hankins is the superintendent of the school district for schools on the lower Kuskokwim River in western Alaska, including the regional hub of Bethel. She told KYUK, “everyone is sort of back in session and trying to attend to student learning while we also attend to storm cleanup and assessment of damage in and around, not just the main school building, but all of our facilities,” Hankins said.

KTOO’s Rhonda McBride reports Hooper Bay’s Tribal Chief Edgar Tall Jr. was among those who took shelter at the school in his village. He told McBride he’s never experienced anything like this storm in his whole life. Now that the water has receded, he says the community can begin assessing the damage.

(Related: Storm batters western Alaska)

AK FLOODING Cafeteria workers at the Hooper Bay School serve spaghetti for dinner to those sheltering at the school on Sept. 17, 2022. (Photo by Mike Roth, Kuspuk School District)

McBride reported, “One of the first things they noticed is their beach has gotten smaller, that the storm took a large swath, which Tall believes may have saved the community from more harm. He says two families have lost their homes completely. Many others will need roof repairs. Debris is scattered throughout the village, but the airport has been cleared for use. Tall says there was damage done to the community’s water system, but its source of water appears to be safe and once power is completely restored, recovery can begin."

Maanvi Singh, with The Guardian, reports, “Nome, where a home was washed off its foundation and floated down a river until it was caught by a bridge, was among the many areas reporting road damage after recording tidal surges.”

Nome, Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Golovin, and Newtok are among the hardest hit communities.

Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Spokesperson Jeremy Zidek said local leaders are reporting, “homes being flooded, homes being pushed off their foundations, damage to roads and docks, damages to public structures, and water distribution systems,” Zidek said. Airports in some villages were closed for hours to days due to debris that has since been cleared.

The top priority for agencies, Zidek said, is getting a full damage assessment, “so we can understand exactly which communities have been hardest hit and what assistance they need.”

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Teams of people are assessing and repairing damages. Electrical providers have teams on the ground. Tribal health organizations are assessing water and sanitation systems. The state Department of Transportation has been working with tribes and municipalities to clear roads and runways. The Coast Guard is flying along the coast and affected waterways to aid in assessment. The American Red Cross of Alaska is working to ensure peoples’ immediate needs for safety, housing, health, food and water are being met.

Unalakleet’s mayor Thomas Simonson told ICT, “We saw significant damage to our water source that is located outside of town. The road towards that water source was completely washed out and the power supply out to the water source was severely damaged.

"So we have had no water in here to the community for about two days, and our backup generator failed as well out at the water source. So we're working hard now to address those issues.”

Western Alaska flooding: The William Miller Memorial School in Napakiak, Alaska on Sept. 18, 2022 (Photo by Bethany Hale)

He said Unalakleet had worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fortify the village against the encroaching sea. Simonson said the village and corps built fortifications and ditches alongside roads for drainage, and berms between the community and bodies of water: a river, a slough and the beach.

They built a berm 1,500 long and as much as 13 feet high between the village and the sea. It held, which he said saved homes and other structures from serious damage. He said ditches and fortifications around roads and on other waterways didn’t fare as well.

“They’re gone, completely gone.” He said, “a couple of culverts failed as well … now when the water is draining through these damaged culverts it’s eating up the road from underneath.”

Simonson said, “our main priority right now is to fortify our beach side to just prepare for the next fall storm that we know will happen.”

If power outages continue, food in freezers may defrost and begin to spoil, at a time of year when it’s more difficult to harvest food from the land and sea. Most of the affected areas are not on a road system and only accessible by boat or plane, which raises the cost of food and supplies.

Also winter in sub-Arctic Alaska is just weeks away, leaving villagers concerned that the ground will freeze, halting construction before even temporary fixes are done. Other repairs already are forecast to take years.

To aid those affected by the storm, Zidek said, “we strongly encourage people if they want to help to donate to an established charitable organization like the American Red Cross, like the Salvation Army. We have the Alaska Charitable Foundation here.” He said well-meaning people create pop-up funding campaigns but don’t always have the capability to deliver the necessary services.

Also, he said, ”cash is always the best form of a donation. It is incredibly versatile. They (responders) can use it for many different functions in the emergency management process and the emergency recovery process. It doesn't ever expire. It also travels really well. There's no, you can just bank transfer and that money travels to anywhere within the state at a moment's notice. So cash is really the most effective way that people can donate,” Zidek said.

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