‘Our lives are at stake’: Shaktoolik residents seek aid to rebuild berm lost in storm

branches piled up on the beach to prevent further damage from flooding.
The storm destroyed Shaktoolik’s berm, all that stands between the village and the salt-water waves. (Gloria Andrew)

People in Shaktoolik are back in their homes after many evacuated to the school when the remnants of Typhoon Merbok hit Western Alaska over the weekend. But the storm washed away the berm that protects the village from the sea.

“We’re back in school,” said Agnes Takak, the school secretary and a member of the Shaktoolik Council. “We have everyone here. Right now we’re just trying to be there for our children. Getting them back into what we are trying to say is normal.”

She says her generation built the berm after elders saw how much land was lost due to erosion. Children in Shaktoolik now have always known the protection of the berm. She says it was a symbol of their security.

She says one student asked: “What are we going to do now?

Takak says there’s a lot of clean up to do. Residents are assessing damage to their homes and properties.

She said if the next storm comes before the village can rebuild the berm, the community could get wiped out.

shaktoolik's coastal berm
Shaktoolik’s coastal berm, before and after the storm. (Photos courtesy of Gloria Andrew.)

“Our organizations don’t have any funding to rebuild right now. We need financial assistance, ASAP. Our lives are at stake,” said Takak.

Mayor Lars Sookiyak says Shaktoolik is pressed for time. He expects a big storm in November.

He said planes can land at the airstrip, but there’s hardly any air traffic, so Shaktoolik could also use some food and water.

“The stores are getting a little bare,” he said.

He’s also concerned about erosion from the storm. The village sits on a narrow spit of land between the Norton Sound and the Shaktoolik River. If the ocean breaches the river, it could pollute it with salwater.

“There’s a risk of losing the freshwater source and Shaktoolik becoming an island,” he said.

Logs washed into the community after the berm was damaged, but water stayed out of the homes.

“My ankles didn’t even get wet — and I didn’t even have my high heels on!” Eugene Asicksik said with a laugh.

Asicksik is on the Shaktoolik Council, and he’s the president of the local Native corporation. He and his family sheltered briefly at the school. But he said the village was prepared — they’ve seen big storms before and had systems in place.

“The electrical system held up. The only thing we did was disconnect the electrical wire to our winter water pumping station, which was a good thing,” said Asicksik.

He says the village likely has enough water for the remainder of the month. By then he’s hoping the village will be able to pump water normally for winter.

Most boats weathered the storm, though Asicksik said one sank in place.

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