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Disaster response presents an early test for Alaska’s Rep. Peltola

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Mary Peltola at Peltola’s swearing-in ceremony, Sept. 13.
Liz Ruskin
Alaska Public Media
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Mary Peltola at Peltola’s swearing-in ceremony, Sept. 13.

As she starts her second week on the job, Congresswoman Mary Peltola is preparing to prod the U.S. House for supplemental disaster spending to help Western Alaska recover from the storm.

“I’m one of the last members off the floor because I’ve been having conversations with members of the Transportation Committee, members of various subcommittees, members with more seniority than I have who have been through natural disasters, giving me advice on different approaches I can take,” Peltola said, after a series of votes in the House chamber Monday night.

It hasn’t happened yet, but President Biden is likely to sign a disaster declaration, as he did for a different storm over the weekend that devastated Puerto Rico. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Monday night he’d send a request soon.

That would release a lot of federal money to storm victims. Congress often has to pass supplemental funds to pay for responses to major disasters.

One of her challenges will be to make other House members recognize the gravity of the Alaska disaster, especially because fewer people are hurt there compared to the three million Puerto Ricans who lost power and other infrastructure.

Peltola talks about the toll on Alaskans who hunt, fish and gather to feed their families.

“These communities, all up and down the coast, have been spending all summer long, gathering food and putting it in their freezer for the winter,” she said Monday night. “Now all of these freezers are going to have electrical damage, water damage. It remains to be seen how much of that food can be salvaged.”

Peltola says disaster relief funding for both Alaska and Puerto Rico might be needed in the continuing resolution – the legislation Congress has to pass before the end of the month to keep the government operating.

She has been elected to serve until January. She’s also running for the next full term. Politicians are often judged by how well they handle a disaster, and this is her first.

She wants people in the nation’s capital to know of all the vehicles damaged in the storm and how important they are to a family’s food security.

“Small boats with outboard motors, four-wheelers, snow machines – my concern is that we make sure that government agencies know that these are not recreational vehicles, that these are critical vehicles for everyday living,” she said.

Her Republican rivals, Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, also issued statements about the storm.

Palin said in a news release that she’s heartbroken by the devastation.

“We are seeing the real spirit of Alaska right now, with people all over the state reaching out to help their fellow Alaskans in this time of need,” her release said.

Begich, in an emailed statement, said his prayers go out to the people affected by the tragedy. As did Palin, he spoke of appreciation for first responders and the Red Cross.

Liz Ruskin