Hooper Bay families displaced by storm seek sustainable housing

a damaged house
Damage in Hooper Bay, where residents are recovering from a severe Western Alaska storm. (Will McCarthy/KYUK)

Although the vast majority of the people who evacuated their houses as the remnants of Typhoon Merbok hit Western Alaska last weekend have returned home, some no longer have any home to return to. Almost a week after the storm, five families and a total of 22 people are still displaced from their homes in Hooper Bay, a town of about 1,300.

Many buildings in Hooper Bay were damaged by the high winds and flooding. Some had their doors, windows, or roofs damaged. Others flooded. One house was ripped off its foundation and sent spinning 500 feet away in the floodwaters.

Twenty-three-year-old Brittany Simon, who was living with her grandparents, said that they won’t be able to return home anytime soon.

“Half of it collapsed and is sinking a little in the mud,” Simon said. “There was a sinkhole that formed from the flood.”

Simon evacuated with her grandparents, three siblings, and her son on Sept. 16. Two days later they returned to the house to try to gather their valuables, only to find it irreparably damaged.

“We went down the next day and we gathered all the photos and important papers and stuff from the house,” Simon said. “When we walked down the hallway it made us feel dizzy, nauseous because it was so slanted.”

Simon is now staying at a church down the street from the school along with the rest of her family and four other families. Simon said that she would like to move into AVCP Regional Housing Authority low-income apartments. So far, there is no timeline on when displaced families might be able to do that.

Hooper Bay leaders are trying to figure out how to get people out of the church and into their own houses, but they need to find a way to do that without compromising long-term solutions.

Not far from the church, a group of community leaders and officials from the housing nonprofit RurAL CAP gathered at the tribal council building. One of them was William Naneng, the general manager of Sea Lion Corp., Hooper Bay’s village corporation. At the meeting, he said that he was wary about putting people into temporary disaster housing. When a fire destroyed homes and displaced residents years ago, Naneng said that the federal temporary housing provided was inadequate.

“What the federal government did was build structures that were not meant for the Arctic,” Naneng said. “And they were very prone to sweating, molding and stuff like that. All the people that had lost homes were using those.”

Naneng said that when the local government tried to get those people out of the temporary homes into apartments, they sacrificed federal funding opportunities that would have helped pay to build proper homes.

He’s worried that if displaced families move into apartments now, it could again cause them to become ineligible for money that would allow them to find permanent housing. Naneng said that if they placed families in low income apartments, they would no longer meet the federal government’s definition of “displaced.”

Back at the church, Loretta Smith, who also lost her house in the storm, just wants to find a permanent solution. She has a 4-year-old son. Smith said that they’re being well taken care of, but it’s not the same as having your own place.

“I just want to go home,” Smith said.

The village corporation sent contractors out around town on Thursday to further assess the damage and see if other homes had foundation, roof, or window damage.

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