Disaster declared for North Slope Borough damage from fall storm

A section of seawall in Utqiaġvik, AK that was damaged during a September storm that was recently declared a Federal Disaster. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management)

In late September, Utqiaġvik was hit by an Arctic storm that lasted several days and caused over $6 million in damages to public structures.

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On Thursday, President Trump approved Governor Walker’s request for a disaster declaration for that storm. It’s the second time in three years that the North Slope Borough has received a disaster declaration for such an event; the last time was in 2015.

The recent disaster declaration means that funding is now available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to rebuild those public structures that were damaged. Thomas Dargan is the Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations on the North Slope.

“There was high wind gusts up to 47 miles per hour, a storm surge two feet above normal high tide,” Dargan said.

A storm of that magnitude isn’t especially severe for Utqiaġvik, but Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the National Weather Service Alaska Region, says what’s changed in recent years is the lack of sea ice — both nearshore, and out on the Arctic Ocean.

“The wind basically acts as a plow pushing the water ahead of it and it piles into the land,” Thoman said.

The result is often water damage to berms, roads, and buildings. Dargan says that one of the structures that needs repair in Utqiaġvik is a shoreline berm meant to protect the city from storm surges. The same berm was damaged and rebuilt back in 2015.

In addition to receiving money to fix damaged structures, the relief comes with funds for mitigation — or protective measures — for the future.

But building better storm protection isn’t easy. Dargan worked on the federal storm recovery effort in 2015 and says that when it comes to rebuilding structures like the shoreline berm, there are complicated engineering problems. And it’s not clear that they have a better option than to just keep rebuilding it.

“We’re not quite sure what that long term solution might be,” Dargan said.

The federal relief comes almost a year after the town of Newtok was denied a Disaster Declaration. FEMA currently doesn’t have a way to fund slow-moving disasters, like the large-scale coastal erosion that’s taking place in Newtok. In contrast, the damage to Utqiaġvik was triggered by a single, distinct event.

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