FEMA administrator to travel to Alaska as state rushes to address storm damages

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Alaska state officials have so far counted 89 residential buildings badly hit by a storm that hit western Alaska over the weekend, but a full estimate of the damage won’t be available for days, according to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who previously traveled to the region be in the week.

The remnants of Pacific Typhoon Merbok, which hit western Alaska starting Saturday, destroyed roads, toppled homes, leveled shacks and scattered debris along the 1,000-mile coastline.

Dunleavy said in a Thursday briefing that it was too early to give an estimate of the cost of damage caused by the storm, at least in part because community members, local governments and state agencies are still assessing the extent of the destruction.

“We expect to find things that no one has seen that need work on, so those estimates will likely extend into the future,” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy has called for the area to be declared a federal disaster to help with recovery efforts before the rapidly approaching winter freeze. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell is expected to arrive in Alaska on Friday, straight from a trip to Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Fiona wreaked widespread devastation. Criswell is scheduled to travel to the affected area in western Alaska over the weekend.

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[‘Some of them just disappeared’: Essential pieces of life in Nome were lost in the storm]

Dunleavy has already requested $10 million in government emergency funds to begin addressing immediate needs. In 2011, $30 million was sent to Alaska state disaster relief funds to help repair species. Dunleavy management anticipate that the cost of this event will exceed this.

The governor traveled to Bethel, Newtok, Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Nome, Golovin, Elim and Koyuk with other state officials earlier in the week to assess damage as the storm subsided. He said Thursday he plans to return to the region on October 1 to assess the progress of repairs.

[In the midst of the storm, a dash to keep the power on in Hooper Bay]

About 130 members of the Alaska National Guard, State Defense Force and Marine Militia are stationed in the area, according to Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. They are tasked with removing debris and communicating with community members to understand their needs, Saxe said.

Some of the most severe damage identified by state officials so far includes destroyed sections of road between Nome and Council, and roads in Elim, Golovin and Nome.

Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner Ryan Anderson said Thursday that the department estimated five to 10 miles of the Nome Council road were “completely obliterated” and another five to 10 miles were “severely damaged.” At Golovin, about three miles were “washed out” and at Elim, Front Street was “completely destroyed.”

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Anderson said all airports in the area are operational. According to Anderson, some of the Federal Aviation Administration’s weather systems are damaged and the Alaska Department of Transportation is working with the FAA to restore them to service.

The state’s disaster programs are focused on “getting things like plywood, insulation, sheet metal for roofs into the communities now,” although the state is awaiting a response from the federal government to a request to declare a disaster and, according to the Alaska Division of Homeland Security Emergency Management Director Bryan Fisher.

“That’s a separate program that’s going on immediately to make sure we can button up homes and make sure the residents out there have a safe and warm place to be before winter hits,” Fisher said .

[Dunleavy requests federal disaster declaration for Western Alaska as reports of storm damage accumulate]

When a federal disaster is declared, FEMA typically pays 75% of the response costs. Dunleavy claimed 100% cost coverage. President Joe Biden has already approved a similar proposal for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction.

According to Dunleavy, state authorities are working under a four-week deadline to meet immediate needs in the face of the looming winter freeze, including flying in thousands of pounds of food and water to replace lost or damaged supplies in several communities, repairing roads and bridges and debris removal, and putting houses back on their foundations.

“It’s really about getting everything up and running and getting ready and ready for the winter,” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy also said he spoke to US Secretary of Homeland Security Director Alejandro Mayorkas by phone Thursday.

“I just said to him, ‘Look, the damage might not be as great as in Puerto Rico or some other places where we have hurricanes, but it’s our timeline that’s the problem, it’s our remoteness that the problem is, it’s our lack of infrastructure, that’s the problem,'” Dunleavy said. “We just have to make sure we don’t get bureaucratic over the next four weeks when it comes to helping people and getting people going.”

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Some of the damaged and lost buildings were livelihood shacks – some of which took years to build and lacked insurance or documentation normally used to obtain relief aid to rebuild.

“We’re going to be having discussions with federal agencies and others about how this is part of the food delivery system for people out there. So we’re going to try to do whatever we can to bring people together across the board,” Dunleavy said.

The Alaska Federation of Natives earlier this week sent letters to Biden, the Alaska congressional delegation, the US Office of Management and Budget and Dunleavy regarding the storm response and its unforeseen impact on the more than 100 typhoon-hit villages in western Alaska.

In a letter to Biden, AFN President Julie Kitka wrote that several communities lack clean drinking water and others lack space to dispose of human waste.

“Your policies of building resilience and environmental justice and supporting adaptation will be tested solely by the impact of this superstorm,” Kitka wrote to the president, urging his administration to work with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Association of Alaska Housing Authorities to work together on water, sanitation and housing issues.

In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, Kitka requested a three-month extension of the grant payment compliance deadlines. Many tribes rely on government grants to meet basic community needs. She also called for a four-week extension for tribes to apply for new grants, including for broadband projects made available through the recently passed infrastructure bill.

“We realize this is an inconvenience to the agencies involved, but the alternative is that nearly half of the tribes in the United States are left behind and unable to participate in these historic opportunities,” Kitka wrote.

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[Read the letter from the Alaska Federation of Natives to President Biden]

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