Halfway across the world from the typhoon-ravaged Philippines, several small, remote communities at the northwestern tip of Turtle Island have been declared disaster areas from damage wrought by severe storms and flooding in mid-November.
The Yup’ik village of Kotlik, Alaska, along with Unalakleet and other predominantly Native communities, were ravaged beginning November 9 by a “series of four storms battered hundreds of miles of Alaska’s west coast with near hurricane force winds, strong sea surges, freezing rain, and snow,” Governor Sean Parnell said in a press release announcing the declaration on November 16. The storms damaged villages along hundreds of miles of coastline, according to the Alaska Dispatch.
Kotlik, with about 600 residents, has filed its own disaster declaration with the state. By last Thursday, local declarations had also come from Stebbins, Scammon Bay, Shishmaref, Tununak, Unalakleet, Teller, Nome, Newtok, Emmonak, Nunam Iqua, Shaktoolik, Elim, Savoonga, Saint Michael, Golovin, Koyuk, and Alakanuk, said Jeremy Zidek, of the Alaska division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, to the Anchorage Daily News on November 14.
The governor’s verbal disaster declaration frees up grants that can now be awarded from the Disaster Relief Fund that will be used to repair and restore public infrastructure, as well as some homes.
With a nine-foot winter surge, the storms decimated food supplies that residents had stored for the winter, destroyed their vehicles and shattered sewer pipes, sending raw sewage flowing through the town, according to a resident who appealed for help on social media. Water from Pastol Bay also rushed in, sending more than 100 people, plus their pets, to the town’s school to take shelter, Kotlik Mayor Thomas Sinka told the Alaska Dispatch.
"The town was actually a part of the ocean," Sinka told the Alaska Dispatch on Monday November 11. "I mean everything was underwater, and our rescue teams were trying to get to all of these people, but the flooding happened so fast we just couldn't."
Search and rescue was hampered by sea ice that pushed into the town, Sinka said. Ice jams are now also littering the community.
Some people have questioned why the state declaration and aid took nearly a week to arrive. A second storm blew in off the Bering Sea right after the first, hampering the damage-assessment efforts needed to prompt a disaster declaration, Zidek told the Alaska Dispatch on November 12.
"We understand that there is a lot of damage that has occurred, however there is also another storm that is coming in," he said. "We won't be able to really assess the damage until that storm is over and it is supposed to run until Thursday."
The storm systems went on to damage the interior of the state as well, blowing down trees and cutting power to thousands. Parnell on November 18 issued disaster declarations for interior Alaska as well as for the Kenai Peninsula.
Across Alaska, people are mobilizing to help, with donations of food, money and other necessities. According to the Anchorage Daily News, an account has also been set up at Wells Fargo, called the Kotlik Community Fund. "Interested donors can go to any Wells Fargo branch and request that a donation be made to the fund," the newspaper said. In addition, the Red Cross is assisting the damaged areas and accepting donations online as well as at the Red Cross office at 235 E. 8th Ave., Ste. 200, in Anchorage, the newspaper said.
"Disaster workers are in Kotlik, and over the last week have gone from home to home providing damage assessments and passing out relief supplies," the Red Cross said in a statement on November 18. "The workers have established that 111 Kotlik residents are in need of individual assistance and 31 households have been affected by the brutal storms. Resources are being mobilized to Kotlik, including relief items such as 500 gallons of water, 140 5-gallon buckets, clean up kits and diapers."
Back in Kotlik, Sinka told the Dispatch that it was difficult to get some elders evacuated and to shelters, so loath were they to leave their property.
"It is a pretty emotional time, right now," Sinka told the newspaper after the first storm. "People are crying. I mean we have seen storms, but even some of the elders say they haven't seen something this bad."