Authorities in Alaska contacted some of the most remote villages in the United States to determine their food and water needs and assess damage after a massive storm flooded communities along the state’s vast west coast this weekend.
No one was reportedly injured or killed in the severe storm – the remnants of Typhoon Merbock – as it moved north through the Bering Strait over the weekend. However, damage to homes, roads and other infrastructure is only beginning to be revealed as flood waters recede.
About 21,000 residents living in small communities scattered along the 1,000-mile (1,609 km) west coast of Alaska – a distance longer than the entire length of the California coast – were affected by the storm.
Many houses across the region were flooded and some were swept away from their foundations by a rush of water driven by strong winds. Officials have begun the process of determining damage to roads, ports, dams, water and sewer systems.
The State Transportation Department said most airports in the area have been reopened and officials have been making temporary or permanent repairs to runways that still have issues, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
On Monday, the storm stalled in the Chukchi Sea near northwest Alaska, but it quickly weakened after impacting weather patterns as far away as California at its strongest.
Coastal flood warnings have been extended to the area north of the Bering Strait as water will slowly recede in cities like Kotzebue, Kivalina and Shishmaref, National Weather Service meteorologist Caitlin Lardeo said.
Shishmaref experienced tides 5.5 feet (1.68 meters) above normal tide levels, while Kotzebue and Kivalina had lower tides, but both were still without power on Monday, she said.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Sunday identified five communities — Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Golovin, Newtok and Nome — that have been hit hard by a combination of high water, flooding, erosion and power problems. Nome, where one house floated down the river until caught by a bridge, was among many who reported road damage after registering 11.1 feet (3.38 meters) above normal tidal waves.
Zidek said government officials are keeping a close eye on the five, but are also reaching out to every community in the region due to multiple reports of destruction.
“While there may be more needs in some, we don’t want to neglect other communities that have minor issues that have yet to be addressed,” he said. However, attempts to contact some communities have been hampered by disconnected communication lines.
The State Emergency Operations Center is fully staffed by military, government agencies, and volunteer organizations to respond to the storm’s aftermath.
Members of the Alaska National Guard in the western half of the country’s largest state have been deployed to provide assistance either in the communities where they live or elsewhere along the coast, he said.
The American Red Cross has 50 volunteers ready to help and they will be sent to the communities most in need.
Most of the support staff will have to be transported to these communities, since there are few roads in western Alaska. Air support will come from the Alaska National Guard, small commuter airlines that fly between these small villages regularly, and possibly bush pilots.
The weather always has a negative effect on flights in rural Alaska, but Zidek said the forecast seemed favorable for response operations.
“Three could be another smaller weather front, but that’s not unusual for this time of year,” he said.
Dunleavy said he would request a federal disaster declaration once the agencies gather the necessary information about the damage. If approved, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover at least 75% of eligible disaster costs, the governor said, with the state taking on the rest.
On Sunday, Dunleavy said timing was of the essence because freeze-up, marking the start of winter, could occur as early as October.
“We just have to convince our federal friends that this is not the situation in Florida, where we have months to work on it,” he said. We have a few weeks.
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