FEMA announced a new Merbok disaster aid application deadline this week; it closes in a few days
Over the last week, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Tribal Liaison Stacy Gundersen has been trading emails with staff at the Calista Corporation about a new disaster assistance application deadline for people impacted by Typhoon Merbok. “Hopefully ready in the next couple of days,” she wrote in one.
The deadline for late applications is looming, but Gundersen wrote that FEMA had not formally announced it yet. While she was waiting for that official announcement, Gundersen told the regional Native corporation’s staff that she had taken it upon herself to send emails and make phone calls to raise awareness of the extension.
Calista Corporation spokesperson Thom Leonard was included in the email chain. He said that the corporation recognized how important it was to get the information out to its shareholders.
“When you just look at Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, and Chevak, there are probably about 600 households that have shareholders, just kind of a rough estimate there,” Leonard said.
Those three communities saw some of the most severe damage from Typhoon Merbok. Dozens of other villages up and down the state’s west coast also saw extensive damage from the storm surge that brought hurricane force winds and high floodwaters.
Calista staff expressed concerned about sharing secondhand information, because FEMA's Typhoon Merbok webpage says that the application period is closed.
In the emails, staff said that they didn’t want to cause confusion, but they also wanted to make sure that people knew that they could still apply for financial relief. Leonard said that Calista decided to post the information to its own social media channels.
“I think one silver lining that comes out of this is hopefully the realization from agencies like FEMA that there are resources, like Alaska Native corporations, with a lot of resources available to serve the residents impacted by horrific situations like Typhoon Merbok,” Leonard said.
FEMA didn’t announce the new deadline until late in the afternoon on Feb. 1, three days before the application period closed.
“You know, obviously, a dream, a big hope is that the late applications are accepted, but we’ll see what the agency decides, ultimately,” Leonard said.
There is a narrow window to apply for the aid and the process has changed. In the past, people applying for aid could do it online. Now, they have to register by phone and write a letter explaining why they didn’t apply for assistance earlier.
“Understanding that three days isn't a lot of time, I am going to have to go back to my team to see if there are other opportunities,” said FEMA spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg. She said that she didn't know if the agency would consider an extension.
After this conversation, FEMA put out a media release saying that it would extend the application deadline through Monday, Feb. 6.
It’s unclear why or when the agency opened this new application period, but one clue as to why they didn’t formally announce it until now is in an email earlier this week, when FEMA’s tribal liaison told Calista staff that the agency was waiting until they had the information translated into the region’s Indigenous languages.
FEMA’s tribal liaison asked Calista staff about the corporation’s ability to provide translation services. While Calista doesn’t technically have a translation service, Leonard said that they can rely on fluent Yup’ik and Cup’ik speaking shareholders, and that they can also work with their non-profit, Calista Education and Culture, Inc., for translation.
Translations have been a problem for the agency as it has dealt with fallout from Typhoon Merbok. Last fall, FEMA hired a translation service to provide information about disaster assistance in Yup’ik and Iñupiaq. Both were inaccurate. The Yup’ik translations were a mishmash of phrases lifted from an 80-year-old book of Russian Indigenous language and folklore. The Iñupiaq translations were done in Northeastern Canada’s Inuktitut alphabet.
Anyone impacted by Typhoon Merbok who hasn’t already applied for federal disaster assistance still can as FEMA has opened a late application period. The deadline to apply is Monday Feb. 6. To submit a late application, call the Alaska-based FEMA hotline at 1-866-342-1699 for assistance. Operators will be available between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Feb. 2, 3, and 4.
Editor's note: After the publication of this story, FEMA sent an updated media release extending its aid application deadline through Feb. 6. The story headline and several paragraphs have been updated to reflect this new deadline.