Nome declares disaster, region seeks state and federal help
By Megan Gannon
City Hall still reeked of smoke when Mayor John Handeland walked into an emergency meeting of the Nome Common Council on Monday. He was wearing a reflective jacket and holding a copy of a resolution to declare a disaster in Nome as a result of the weekend’s historic storm, one of the most severe in recent memory. It was one step in the City’s quest for state and federal funds to rebuild and recover in the weeks ahead.
The remnants of Typhoon Merbok brought dangerous conditions and destruction along more than 1,000 miles of Alaska’s coast. In Nome, a record-high storm surge of about 11 feet eroded roadways and flooded buildings closest to the shoreline. The one-page resolution that Handeland presented said the severity and magnitude of this event was beyond the response capability of local resources.
The resolution declared a “disaster emergency” for the City of Nome, as well as for the state-owned roads and the international airport within the town’s boundaries. It expressed that the City would ask for state and federal disasters to be declared so that relief funds would become available. Still, the resolution recognized that the City would likely spend “significant unplanned sums” related to the disaster that would not be fully reimbursable by state and federal programs. The action was passed unanimously by councilmembers Scot Henderson, Jerald Brown, Doug Johnson, Mark Johnson, Adam Martinson and Megan Sigvanna Tapqaq.
During the short meeting, Handeland said that Nome handled the storm “with flying colors.”
“When things like this happen, the community bands together, even more than we try to do on a day-to-day basis,” Handeland said. “We’ll survive this. We’ll rebuild.”
Sept. 17 now has “even more significance” in Nome’s history, he said. On Sept. 17, 1934, much of the city was razed during a devastating fire. Eighty-eight years to the day later, a fire at the Bering Sea Restaurant threatened to spread to other buildings while the storm raged. The Nome Volunteer Fire Department managed to contain the blaze. Two days later, the NVFD was still putting out hotspots in the smoldering husk of the building.
Paul Kosto, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, piped up from the audience: “I’d like to shine a bright light on our near future—we’re going to have a full-fledged Fireman’s Carnival this December.” COVID-19 had interfered with recent iterations of the annual carnival, an important fundraiser for the NVFD.
Handeland praised other groups aiding in response efforts. Shoni Evans, director of the Nome Community Center, mobilized to open the NEST shelter for a few nights. Church congregations, teachers and other volunteers quickly helped clean debris and garbage that washed up from the seawall. But as various crews dealt with the immediate public safety hazards left by the storm, the arduous work to assess the millions of dollars in damages was just beginning.
“This is not going to be done in a few days,” said City Manager Glenn Steckman. “This is gonna take a while. And hopefully we’ll be better prepared for the next storm that comes.”
City officials have been strongly urging businesses, individuals and public entities involved in storm response and recovery to document damages, and log their labor, equipment use and expenses in real-time. That documentation will be useful when there’s a clearer picture of the aid available.
Steckman said an estimate for the total damages had yet to be calculated, but it was easily in the millions just from adding up all the labor costs of various Alaska Native corporations, the city and village entities.
“That’s why documenting all of this is important, so that we can try to come up with some type of an assessed value of the costs and damages to this region,” Steckman said.
State and federal help
As of press time on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Mike Dunleavy was scheduled to arrive in the region to meet with leaders and see damages himself in communities that bore the worst of the storm’s effects, such as Golovin. Dunleavy had declared a state disaster on Saturday morning and had promised to submit a request for a federal disaster declaration.
“If approved, at least 75 percent of eligible disaster costs would be covered by FEMA, with the state picking up the tab for the rest,” Dunleavy said in a statement on Monday. In a call with reporters later that night, Dunleavy’s Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Bryan Fisher, said that so far, the state had counted 63 homes across the entire path of the storm that reported damage locally, but that number did not include the seasonal camps and cabins.
President and CEO of Kawerak Melanie Bahnke has been trying to get the message across to state and federal agencies that “subsistence cabins are food security.”
“It’s where people process fish and seal meat,” Bahnke told The Nome Nugget. “It’s not just recreational. I’ve been trying to communicate that. I think once federal disaster aid kicks in, we’re going to be documenting damages or losses to subsistence cabins in the hopes that we’ll be able to get some aid for those who have experienced losses or damages.”
Bahnke said Kawerak employees who lost camps were given a paid week off to attempt to recover and salvage those sites. The company is also providing airfare for its employees who have family in Golovin, the Norton Sound’s worst-hit village, and want to get out to the village to help the cleanup.
Alaska’s new representative in Congress, Mary Peltola of Bethel, who was just sworn in last week, told reporters on Monday that she was briefed by FEMA, and one of the questions that came up was about vehicles.
“We understand that many boat motors, many four-wheelers, many snowmachines have been impacted and are not useable, and as you all know, these types of vehicles are critical to the livelihood of people who live in these communities,” Peltola said. “Much like folks in Anchorage and Fairbanks and Juneau use their car to get to work and get to the grocery store, ATVs and outboard motors are used in getting out and harvesting food. This is their livelihood. This is the way they put food on the table.”
Peltola said one of the “biggest reliefs” in her FEMA call came when she learned that federal funds may contain a household allowance for one summer vehicle and one winter vehicle, up to $18,950.
During the special meeting of the Council on Monday, Councilmember Jerald Brown had asked if language could be added to the city’s disaster declaration acknowledging the destruction to the wider region around Nome even if it fell outside the city’s jurisdiction. His suggestion was approved by the other councilmembers. The revised resolution included a line to say that “some sections of coastal roadway have been totally erased,” while “seasonal and subsistence campsites were disheveled, and many either flattened or missing.”
The room got quiet during Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Nome Emergency Operations Command when Paul Kosto played aerial footage from a pilot who flew over the Nome-Council Road in the aftermath of the storm. In some areas, the road was gone. A new channel had completely cut through one section. In other parts, the road was obscured by mounds of sand or strewn with driftwood, rocks and other debris. Several subsistence camps that lined the beach had been lifted off their foundations and carried to the other side of the lagoon or destroyed.
Calvin Schaeffer, the maintenance and operations superintendent for the Western District of the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, said that he was looking at damage basically along the entire 30-mile stretch from Nome to Solomon.
“Right now, we’re still pulling everything together,” said Schaeffer. “The plan is just keep moving with what we have.”
His long to-do list included an assessment of damage to the seawall along Front Street and sending dozers out by Cape Nome to find the road under mounds of sand. Schaeffer’s department is sorely understaffed, but he said he was looking into contracting Knik for some work as they still had equipment in Nome from the recently completed airport renovations.
During the meeting, Schaeffer and other responders discussed what to do about the miners who started flocking to the eroded road, shoveling in areas that looked dubious in terms of both safety and property rights.
“They’re digging under the road and saying they’re taking the red material, but it’s still the road,” Schaeffer said. “We don’t need another accident.”
Kawerak had already put out a notice that warned looters to respect private and tribal land rights, especially around the Fort Davis area and down the coast. The City and the Nome Police Department said they were ready to intervene if trespassing continued.
When funds arrive for rebuilding, regional leaders will have to make decisions about how to improve their existing protections.
“It was more severe than any storm I’ve ever seen,” Kawerak CEO Bahnke said. “The storms are coming in more frequently and more powerfully. We need to do a better job of mitigating damage. There’s federal aid and state aid for disaster response, but we need more investment when it comes to protecting our communities in the first place.”
She said the damages were in some ways not surprising considering that several villages in the region have been listed as being in “imminent danger” by the Denali Commission. While Kawerak receives federal funds for transportation, the organization cannot use that money to build seawalls, which Bahnke suggested might be the most beneficial types of projects for threatened coastal communities. During the special Council meeting on Monday, Bering Straits Native Corporation board member Roy Ashenfelter wanted to acknowledge the usefulness of the seawall in Nome.
“You could see—at least I could anyway—the value of our investment in the seawall,” Ashenfelter said.
But with both freeze-up and the possibility of late-fall storms ahead, rebuilding efforts in the Bering Sea region are also under a time-crunch. Schaeffer said it was just too late in the year to do anything major to the roads; his goal was simply to get the Council Road in good enough shape for people to get out to their camps. Villages that suffered worse damage than Nome are also hoping to make repairs swiftly. In Shaktoolik, a 14-foot berm saved that the community from devastation was itself destroyed in the storm, leaving residents newly vulnerable and worried about what might happen during another more typical November storm.
“If something’s gonna happen, it’s gotta happen fast,” said Gloria Andrew, a custodian at the school in Shaktoolik. She was documenting the stark differences of her village’s coastline before and after the storm. Andrew said the village nearly became an island during the storm and that residents feared they would become cut off from their freshwater source.
The storm has also put an added stress on already rare resource in the Bering Strait region: housing. Golovin now probably needs about 10 houses, said the Bering Strait School District’s new superintendent, Susan Nedza, who visited the community this week.
“It’s devastating,” Nedza said. “Whole houses just floated right off their foundations, including some teacher housing. We’ve had silt and sand, three, four inches deep inside teacher housing, and in their neighbors’ housing as well.”
Nedza hoped that once FEMA mobilized, the agency might be able to offer emergency housing. The BSSD delegation brought in shelf-stable food and water for Golovin. The school’s food stores were destroyed in the storm, which itself was a loss of about a half-million dollars, Nedza said.
While school was canceled for the rest of the week in Golovin, Nedza hoped some of the kids would get back in the building for sports practice and that some might still attend the upcoming dance festival in Teller as planned. She hoped to keep some sense of normalcy for the kids and teachers but was thankful that the district had 12 counselors to help mitigate the emotional damage of the storm.
“It was it was very traumatic for a lot of people,” Nedza said. “Just because the storm has passed, the damage has not.”
Bahnke said some of the best ways to help right now were through donations to the Alaska Community Foundation and the Alaska Red Cross, which has set up a separate fund just for Western Alaska and was sending a six-person team to Nome.