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Alaska Governor Requests Federal Disaster Declaration

The governor's request will need to be approved by President Biden. Though a state-level emergency was already declared, federal approval of the request would mean that at least 75% of eligible disaster costs would be reimbursed by the federal government.

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(TNS) — Gov. Mike Dunleavy submitted a request Tuesday for a federal disaster to be declared for Western Alaska to help with the recovery from Typhoon Merbok.

"I have determined this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective recovery is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments," reads the request from the governor's office. "Supplemental federal assistance is required."

The governor's request will need to be approved by President Joe Biden. Though a state-level emergency was already declared, federal approval of the request would mean that at least 75% of eligible disaster costs would be reimbursed by the federal government, bringing more programs and resources to rebuilding efforts in the months and years ahead.

"The actual costs from this disaster have not been quantified, but are expected to be substantial," Dunleavy said.

In the few days since the storm, the state has been able to start an "informal preliminary assessment" cataloging severe damage. Officials have tallied damage to 40 towns and villages stretching from the Bering Strait region in the north to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River in the south — some 1,300 miles of coastline. Local officials have reported 69 homes and "28 other structures" have been impacted by the storms.

"However, the full extent of the damage to homes and personal property remains unknown. There is a strong probability that additional homes with damage will be identified in the next few weeks," Dunleavy said.

Federal disaster funds sent $30 million to Alaska after the 2011 storm for personal assistance and road repairs, but the Dunleavy administration expects costs from this event to surpass that.

The initial assessments of damage across the region include bridges and roads, water treatment plants, bulk fuel tanks, seawalls, breakwaters, berms, airstrips, generators, power plants and costs for clean up as well as providing basic safety and shelter.

The state's request estimates that 500 Alaskans sought emergency shelter at some point during the storm.

In the Bering Strait region, Nome has fast become a waystation for supplies and essential material moving to some of the most battered communities.

Kevin Lock has flown tens of thousands of hours around the region in a CASA turboprop, a medium-sized cargo plane of Spanish vintage, delivering air freight for Ryan Air.

"This was one of the worst," Lock said of the storm. "I've seen some bad ones, but this is one of the worst."

"There was a little beach before, but now there's a giant one," Wika said, showing a picture on her phone of tan sand climbing north of the shore's edge and around homes in the townsite.

Lock and Wika were two of the first outside pilots to deliver supplies to Golovin and other communities once the storm died down enough for planes to fly. They brought in tons of water: 19,800 pounds of bottles atop wooden pallets, donated by Ryan Air and another regional freight carrier, Northern Air Cargo.

Ryan Water to Golovin

"We knew Golovin needed it the most," said Justin Polayes, Ryan's station manager in its Nome office.

The two freight companies scrambled Sunday to have crews and material in place for the drinking water shipments. In the days ahead, the list of essential cargo will expand.

"We're moving dry food ... and stuff for the stores," Polayes said.

Some provisions they can't fly out yet. Food that needs refrigeration, for example, cannot be brought to Golovin because the town still has no power.

Eventually, as residents across the region continue taking stock of damage, the freight companies will likely start hauling plywood, insulation and other building materials to help people button up their homes as best they can before real winter cold arrives.

"They're still salvaging; they don't know what they need," Polayes said.

"A timely disaster declaration that includes the requested resources is essential to ensure the life, health, and safety of affected disaster survivors," according to Dunleavy's disaster request. "Survivors are facing extreme winter conditions."

"The affected communities are not on the road system and because of sea ice delivering materials and supplies by barge will not be possible until the spring breakup. The only available option for delivery of resources is by air carrier, which will significantly increase the response and recovery costs," Dunleavy said.

The immediate need, though, Polayes said, is "water, shelf-stable food, diapers, stuff like that."

One of the most immediate needs is potable water. Several communities suffered complete failures to drinking water systems. Others are discovering their water and treatment infrastructure is ruined.

Kawerak, the regional nonprofit serving the Bering Strait region, is gathering information from communities on the emerging toll from the storm. In addition to the problems at Golovin and Elim, Unalakleet lost its water supply system, the road to Shishmaref's sanitation disposal site is gone, an empty petroleum tank in Stebbins floated away, and the protective berm protecting Shaktoolik is no more.

Many of those systems have been struggling for years, ill-equipped to handle the intensity and duration of an early fall storm like the one last weekend.

"These are recurring damages," said Sean McKnight, transportation director for Kawerak. "We're looking for more permanent solutions to the problems."

According to McKnight, what saved Shaktoolik was volunteers from the town working through the night shoveling dirt and hauling sand to fortify the berm as the storm nibbled away pieces of it. But as extreme weather grows more frequent and less predictable, serious consideration is needed about whether communities can continue to exist in their current locations.

"Shaktoolik is right on the cusp of where they might not be able to survive there, given sea level rise," McKnight said. "The environment is changing."

He and others at Kawerak are working to aggregate community needs as more personnel from the state and federal governments begin arriving to assess damage and dispense aid. According to McKnight, communities in the region have never had the modern, adequate infrastructure they deserve, and serious investment is needed to keep communities safe and in tact.

"We have communities that can't be protected from these events," McKnight said.

No definitive time frame for aid

Under a major federal disaster declaration, federal aid programs can start being activated, but which ones are authorized depends on the specific disaster and the relief requested. Along with a public assistance program to give aid to the state, local governments and tribes, there could be an individual assistance program to help Alaskans with the costs of repairing destroyed or damaged homes, as was offered after the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake.

Michael Flores, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said if the state's request is granted, the goal would be to get federal relief out as quickly as possible, but he said there is no definitive time frame.

Flores said there are a limited number of FEMA officials currently assisting the state's response. If a federal disaster is declared, more personnel can be brought in, if needed, Flores said.

Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration Saturday morning, which allowed spending from the state's disaster relief fund. Jeremy Zidek, spokesperson for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said ensuring critical health and safety needs of impacted residents has been the priority for the state as it works with its local government and tribal partners.

"When the state's multiagency response effort identifies an immediate need, we have regional and state resources ready, and funding, to meet the need," Zidek said Monday.

Daily News reporter Sean Maguire in Juneau contributed.

©2022 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.