On Saturday, three prominent federal government officials were in Nome to survey the damage done by the significant storm that devastated Western Alaska.
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell spoke with KNOM about their reactions to the damage, the resources available to Western Alaska from the federal disaster declaration signed by President Joe Biden on Friday evening and their priorities for recovery. Bryan Fisher, director of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, also talked about the state’s priorities and resources available over the coming weeks.
For more coverage of the historic storm visit alaskapublic.org/weather.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Davis Hovey: All right. Well, welcome to Nome. It’s a pleasure to have all of you here. I’m going to try to throw one question at a time and go around the room. So we’ll just start with reactions and the goal of your visit. So Representative Peltola, you’re up first, how would you like to start?
Mary Peltola: All right Davis, well, we just landed here in Nome. We were on a C-130 with the Coast Guard tagging along on on one of their missions, and we were able to fly over Unalakleet, Shaktoolik and Golovin. And, you know, from that vantage point, I wasn’t able to see too many particulars. We saw a lot of driftwood. We saw a lot of standing water yet on the runways. And I’m just looking forward to talking with people here in Nome and having those face-to-face conversations.
Lisa Murkowski: So I had the opportunity to come in to Nome yesterday; we came in by jet on Alaska Air, a little bit delayed, but we were able to get out to Golovin and Elim. I think it was important to be on the ground and to see the difference in the damage between a community like Elim and Golovin, the amount of of devastation to Front Street there in Elim, literally the asphalt peeled, peeled back like a substance that just doesn’t even make sense. To see how the erosion from the beach had undercut the houses along the bluff there and literally being held up by an old telephone pole. Really actually quite frightening, and looking at that that driftwood that’s piled up, but the damage to the road is particularly acute. And then being in Golovin, to see how literally the houses had been picked up by the storm surge and moved hundreds of feet and deposited literally in the middle of the road. We visited with many of the Guard folks that were there helping with the cleanup in Golovin, and to understand that it’s not just the floodwaters that have done damage, but the diesel than that has gotten into water, that’s soaked into insulation under the homes. So it might look OK from from the road as you’re driving by, but understanding that you can smell the fumes, you can see it, was really quite impactful. So to have the FEMA administrator with us here in Alaska, I think is extraordinarily important. I’m very, very grateful that she has traveled all the way from across the country and having seen the damage in Puerto Rico, to now be here. So my hope is to be able to translate a little bit of the Alaska uniqueness, to understand what it means to lose your subsistence foods going into a winter, to understand how close we are to winter and what that means for a cleanup perspective. So it’s going to be a full day, and I’m very appreciative that she is here, and that Representative Peltola is part of the traveling team.
DH: Thank you, Senator, and we’ll come back to that winter point as well. But Administrator Criswell, your reaction from what you’ve seen so far?
Deanne Criswell: Yeah, Davis, I it’s been a really good day just to start, right, we came in on the C-130. And, you know, I’ve heard and people have explained to me, and I’ve seen pictures of the unique nature of the west coast here and the remoteness and how difficult it’s going to be and some of the challenges that they’re going to face. But it really was eye-opening to really realize that as we’re flying over these communities and being able to truly see how one, exposed they are to the elements and the storm that came in, and then just the extreme difficulty that it’s going to bring to try to provide the needed support that’s going to have to happen quickly over the next few weeks. But then in the long term, I think for me, what I really want to understand through the rest of the day today, is what is the most important thing that these communities need us to accomplish in the next three weeks, right? Because we know that we are working under a very short window. We know we’re going to have some long-term things that we’re going to have to do. But we know we have this window, right, and what is the most important thing that we need to accomplish in that timeframe? The Senator and I talked a little bit, the Congresswoman and I talked a little bit about that as well. And so that’s really what my goal is for today is to understand that so we can get those resources moving.
DH: Thank you. And Bryan, did you have anything to add to that?
Bryan Fisher: I just say, you know, we have hundreds of responders in the area now between the Alaska National Guard and the Alaska State Defense Force, my staff from state Emergency Management and the Red Cross, out in the community since the storm passed. We’re seeing a lot of the same things that the Senator mentioned earlier in her visit to Golovin. I think we spoke on the ride up here, Representative Peltola and Administrator Criswell and I, we think that, you know, the public has an expectation that we’re they’re going to get assistance. They don’t really care whether it’s state or federal, you know, FEMA or my folks. And that’s what we’re here for. We’re really one team, the Senator — I’ve worked on disasters since she’s been a senator — have a long history there. But we’re really here as one unified team: state, federal government, along with our partners at Bering Straits and Kawerak, and the the tribes and the court, the local village corporations, to make sure that we get that help out there quickly. Like Administrator Criswell said, what we need to do before freeze-up and then the longer term rebuilding have a lot of road damage and berms and things like that, that we’ll have to deal with in the long run.
DH: It seems like everyone’s on the same page, then, about federal disaster assistance. I mean, we want that declaration for this region, of course; what stands between this region getting that and actually receiving that assistance at this point? What needs to happen?
LM: The President has signed the major disaster declaration, that was signed yesterday; that was very welcome news. I think from where I’m sitting right now, I think our push needs to be to to ask for additional relief by way of of assistance with the cost-share waiver. I noted that the President had provided for 100% of cost reimbursement for 30 days to help with, I believe, debris removal. And please, Administrator, correct me if I’m if I’m wrong on this, but this is something where I look to to the communities that are impacted right now and their ability, their financial ability, the ability on the state side, to come up with the cost share is very hard, given what we know the high cost to all of this is going to be. It’s not easy to get the materials up here whether it is construction materials, or it’s road-building materials. And that’s just the reality of living out in rural Alaska.
DH: Administrator Criswell, I’m gonna go to you on that, but also to Senator Murkowski’s point, this puts us in a different situation than say, Puerto Rico, who’s also asking for assistance from Hurricane Fiona. I mean, not only the timetable we’re on, but also the cost of living out here. So could you speak to that as well, related to the federal disaster declaration?
DC: Yeah, so the federal disaster declaration does a couple of things. Right. It was signed yesterday, as the Senator said, by President Biden, and it provides both support for individuals and it provides support for public infrastructure. On the individual side, it can provide funding to help them with temporary repairs to their homes, it can also provide funding to support with some of the life-saving measures that they have the sustenance to help replace some of what they lost. Right. So first, since we have the mic here, if you want you can register for assistance with us now. You can call 1-800-621-FEMA, or you can go to DisasterAssistance.gov. And — I’m sure Bryan will talk about this — this complements the programs that the state already has in place as well. And we’ll make sure that we have a tight team looking at the two different programs to see what it is we can give to individuals. On the public assistance side, right now we have what we call Category A and B. Category A is debris removal, and Category B is emergency protective measures. So this disaster declaration provides reimbursement for the costs incurred to do the debris removal that’s out there, as well as any of the overtime or emergency repairs that are being undertaken right now. And again, as we talk about what needs to happen over the next three to five weeks, those costs for those temporary emergency repairs, we can reimburse those costs. And I know the state has very robust contracting capabilities to bring in resources, and we’ll work to try to figure out how we can supplement that if needed. And I know that there has been a request for 100% cost share, and we’ll continue to work with the state on the needs on that request.
DH: Okay. Bryan, sounds like you were called out there. Anything to add?
BF: So I think like Administrator Criswell said, the good thing about our programs is they really mirrored each other. You know, the state has had 14 state declared disasters and four federally declared disasters since Halloween of last year. So when the Senator talks about the potential for cost shares, I think that’s important. The legislature has done an amazing job. They appropriated $50 million for future disasters (during) the state fiscal year for us. However, we’re going to have more disasters this year, and we certainly don’t want to use all of the state funding. We’ll use everything that we need to to respond to this and then, like Administrator Criswell said, they’ll come in with some financial support to back us up there. So we’re certainly not out of the woods, the region is not out of the woods in terms of storms until we see shore. So it’s important that we look at bringing all of those financial resources together, our state program is going to be open for applications starting on Monday at ready.alaska.gov. And I think some of the things that the Administrator talked about — replacing subsistence gear, doing repairs to fish camps and hunting camps — those are all eligible under our program. And we work closely with FEMA ahead of time to make sure that their program’s near ours; there’s a lot of things that FEMA does in Alaska that they don’t do anywhere else in the country. They have an understanding of our needs up here, particularly when it comes to increased transportation costs, subsistence lifestyle, and all of the things that go with that — boats and ATVs and snowmachines are not recreational vehicles. Administrator Criswell, her whole team understand that. So those are the types of things that we’re going to be looking towards finding out whether we’re gonna repair them or replace those as we move into winter.
DH: Yeah, great response there. And I’ll throw out this group question, anybody who wants to take it on: How do you determine the priorities at this point? I mean, you’ve got Shaktoolik, who now has no berm to protect them from a future storm; you have, as you mentioned, the subsistence gear that’s been completely wiped out in a lot of communities. That is going to be crucial going into the summer. But then you’ve also got more immediate concerns right now before freeze-up. So who wants to take that priority question?
BF: So I’ll take a first stab at it. So every community is a priority. There are obviously some much more substantial impacts and communities like Golovin and Shaktoolik. Our priority with respect to the individuals and families that live out there is to remove that contaminated insulation and and replace belly board, replaced tin that might have been lost on folks’ roofs, to replace Toyo stoves if they were damaged and flooded upright fuel tanks. Our program does allow to provide financial aid to refill those fuel tanks, home heating oil tanks if we if they were lost or spilled in the disaster. So our number-one priority is to make sure that we can get homeowners back in their safe and secure homes. Some of these homes have to be moved quite a ways to get back to where they were, a lot of homes need to be jacked back up and put back on their pilings. So from a human perspective, that’s our number-one priority. Fortunately, our infrastructure held up fairly well, you know, obviously significant damage on the road between here and Council that we’re working on with (Department of Transportation) Commissioner (Ryan) Anderson. So the infrastructure by and large is looking good: airports are up, the lights are up and running, mail was delivered — important for last week when the dividend was sent out. So the infrastructure is looking okay, for now, our real focus is trying to make sure that homeowners are back in their home safe, sound and secure as we move into the winter. The other things you mentioned, we will look at trying to make sure we’re ordering things that we need on the first barges once the ice goes out this spring to make sure folks have the resources necessary to get back out there hunting and gathering and fishing.
DH: Anybody else want to add on?
MP: Well, and just kind of broad comments: The Department of Interior announced yesterday that they’re going to provide $2.6 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 45 communities that had been affected. That’s really for essential items, food and water. The continuing resolution that Congress is working on right now, we’re fortunate that we may be able to — we will be able to fit things in the process. There’s they call it an anomaly. I think in in the state vernacular, it’s a supplemental or a fast-track supplemental, but in the federal process, they call it an anomaly. So that’s what my office will be working on and making sure that we are as helpful as we can be. And this isn’t going to be easy. And even even with the state and the feds coordinating as well as we are, this is going to be a challenge. I mean, I’ve been trying to get an outboard motor for two years. And so it — even with the reimbursements, it’s going to be very hard for families to find the ATVs and snowmachines and outboard motors and skiffs that they need. These are all in high demand, and we’ve got logistics issues. So it’s really incumbent upon all of us to do what we can on our end to make it as painless for residents as we can.
LM: You’ve asked a good question about what the priority needs to be for right now, and I think that’s been well articulated. But what I’m hearing from people when we were at our little town hall and Golovin and in Elim is, “We’re vulnerable. We lived through this, there was no loss of life. Thankfully, there’s there’s destruction to property, and we’re resilient. We’re gonna get through this. But what happens next?” And as Brian has said, this is just the beginning of storm season, you’ve got Shaktoolik that has lost their full berm, what they had relied on; what Nome was able to withstand, because you had a pretty good seawall there, now is exposed. And so I think more long-term this is what we need to be thinking about on the federal side, is what more we can be doing. From the perspective of resiliency for these communities that are exposed, we’re seeing a level of storm and intensity of storms, earlier storms as we’re seeing warming due to climate change. This is our new, kind of our new normal here. And if that’s the case, we’ve got to be thinking about the longer-term view and how we provide for a level of resilience for these communities, whether it’s evacuation roads, whether it’s seawalls. But there is a vulnerability right now that I that I’m certainly hearing in people’s voices.
DH: We’re running out of time. So I do have to wrap here, but because you will have another meeting to go to. But Administrator Criswell, I’ll start with you, if you want to comment on that last question. And also your final thoughts, any message you’d like to get across to Western Alaska?
DC: Yeah, I just want to piggyback a little bit on what the Senator said, we are seeing a drastic change in the types of storms that we’re seeing around the nation, right? And Alaska certainly is no stranger to the impacts that we’re seeing from climate change. One of the focuses that we’ve really had is, how do we start to get ahead of that? How do we start to think about what are the future risks going to be? Instead of basing all of our planning efforts on the historical risk that we’re used to? It’s not the same, we can’t continue to plan on what we’ve experienced in the past, because it’s just not going to be the same 10 years from now. So we’re doing from the FEMA side, a lot of work on our hazard mitigation programs, and working with communities to try to better understand what 10 years from now might look like, what can we do today to reduce the impact that we’re going to see from those storms. And then for Alaskans right now, here on the west coast, I just want to say we’re focused right now on what is it that we need to do for the next three to five weeks to make sure that we’re set, we’re going to be here through the long haul, we’re going to be here to help with the recovery, the permanent recovery, that’s going to happen later, and also help with some of these ongoing conversations about how do we reduce the impacts to mitigation.
DH: Brian, final thoughts from you.
BF: So just add a little bit to what the Senator and the Administrator said, you know, we’ve seen indication some areas of bluffs, you know, there’s newly exposed permafrost communities are worried about that being exposed, it’s just going to melt more rapidly now. So Administrator Criswell, and I’ve had many conversations over the last year about making sure that the federal programs are accessible, and and to our communities in Alaska who have difficulty navigating the federal grant application system. So we definitely want to make sure moving forward that we are making those programs accessible to our communities, so they’re treated fairly and equitably. Sometimes competing against New York or Miami-Dade County or New Orleans is tough for our communities, when they’re dealing with all the federal programs, but we’re gonna be here to help look at that for the next storms that come. And you know, like Deanne said, for the next 10-20 years, things are changing up here, we’re gonna have to take a different look at mitigating our communities to make them more resilient to the storms, because they’re going to keep coming.
DH: Well said. Representative Peltola, final thoughts from you?
MP: I’m just real happy to be here — it’s too bad it’s under these circumstances, but I’m looking forward to talking to people. Thank you, Davis.
DH: Thank you. And Senator?
LM: Just a big thank you. Thank you to not only the FEMA folks, the federal resources, the state, the volunteers that are here, Red Cross, I understand (Team) Rubicon is coming in this week, those kinds of volunteers. But also the people here in the communities, there is a resilience and we’re we’re working through this together. I was talking to a young man in Golovin yesterday who lives in Nome, but he’s mucking out his dad’s house and he’s going to go help out his uncle, rip the insulation out and try to be there. What is happening is really heartwarming; I look at the devastation of the fire there at the Bering Sea (restaurant), and think about all this community has gone through in the past — literally like a week, and it is extraordinary how people have come together. You’ve got the yellow bags out there today with everybody, all the volunteers doing trash pickup. It’s really heartwarming to see. So just thank you to all those who have come together at a time of a real anxiety; it just represents the best of Alaskans, and those who want to be here to help us with that. So thank you.
DH: Well, thank you all for being here, and thank you for your time.