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FEMA is making sweeping changes, but they’ve come too late for Typhoon Merbok survivors

A week after Typhoon Merbok tore the metal roofing from a house in Chevak in late September 2022, brothers David and Mark Ulroan were up on top of the building trying to make repairs. In October 2023, Mark Ulroan said that the roof still hadn’t been fully fixed.

“I went over there to give [my brother] a hand to fix the roofing that Merbok messed up,” Ulroan said. The electrical line to his brother David’s house had also been severed during the storm. “He had a problem with that. I don't know if they fixed it or not,” Ulroan said, and added that someone in the community offered up a sheet of metal to help make repairs.

Others in the community, like Edgar Knight, also haven’t been able to fix damage from Typhoon Merbok. “Yeah, there’s no more roofing up there,” said Knight as he gestured to damage from what was one of the most dramatic storms to hit Alaska in the last 50 years. “The whole house is very old,” said Knight as he pointed out other damages.

Knight lives with his wife and seven children. Their house was already in disrepair prior to Typhoon Merbok, but last year’s storm forced them to seal off half of the building. Now their family of nine is crammed into a space smaller than a standard two-car garage. He said that he applied for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but it wasn’t for his house. “It was only for my boat and motor that was lost,” said Knight.

Knight couldn’t complete an application to FEMA for repairs to his home because he’s had a hard time finding the paperwork that proves this house and the property belong to him. And even if he could find the proof, under current FEMA policy it’s unclear exactly what could be repaired with individual disaster assistance funds. Up until now, FEMA has had a strict “habitability” definition that limited the agency’s power to fix damage to homes that already had problems.

But that’s changing. FEMA is reworking its “habitability” definition for families like Knight’s. His house was already damaged; Typhoon Merbok made it worse. In the past, FEMA’s policies limited repairs paid for by the agency to damage caused by a storm. With the new change, individual assistance will be enough to make a house “safe and sanitary” after a disaster.

“That’s huge,” said Bryan Fisher, Director of Alaska’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Fisher said that the state has been asking for these kinds of changes since 2013, when a catastrophic flood on the Yukon River inundated the city of Galena.

“At the time, we were able to demonstrate in survivors' homes the silliness of FEMA offering to pay for half a sheet of plywood, which is not helpful when there was pre-existing damage,” said Fisher. “If we need to replace an entire sheet of plywood in somebody’s home to make it habitable again, then that’s what FEMA should be doing.”

The definition of “habitability” won’t be the only change to current policy. At the end of March 2024, the most sweeping changes to FEMA’s individual assistance program in 20 years will go into effect. John Pennington is the former Director of FEMA’s Region X, which includes FEMA operations in Alaska. “I feel like many of these proposals are in ways a direct response to shortcomings in the policy discovered through Typhoon Merbok,” he said.

Pennington also said that the changes FEMA plans to implement this year are overdue.

“This program has been, I don’t want to call it stagnant, but it has not matched a lot of reality in communities that are impacted by disasters, I think, especially remote and isolated communities,” Pennington said. “So what they're proposing here are significant changes that are unquestionably going to align policy with reality for disaster survivors.”

According to FEMA, the changes increase flexibility for survivors, relieve financial burdens on individuals, and cut red tape. The agency is removing a cumbersome requirement that assistance applicants apply for a loan from the Small Business Administration.

The agency will also simplify the process for late applications and appeals if an application is denied. That’s something Stella Lake experienced. Typhoon Merbok damaged the boat she uses for subsistence hunting and fishing in Chevak, so she applied to FEMA for help to fix it. According to Lake, the process was complicated.

“At first they denied it,” Lake said. “They gave me a little bit, which wasn't enough to buy motor parts. And then I happened to be in Anchorage when I heard about a couple of lawyers that were helping Native people appeal their FEMA applications. And they helped me out. And I was surprised with more money later.”

FEMA is also “reimagining” the government website used to apply for disaster assistance. Even so, Fisher said that website changes are unlikely to significantly benefit Alaskans in the future.

“So it’s good news that it’s streamlined and they are making some significant improvements to the customer experience, if you will, but that doesn’t help us if we don’t have communications after a storm,” Fisher said.

Fisher said that connectivity will continue to challenge disaster recovery in Alaska.

“So FEMA is still committed to get on the ground with us as their partners at the state of Alaska in the communities. To take paper and pen applications when necessary, like we did during Merbok,” Fisher said.

FEMA’s policy changes have come too late for Lake, Knight, and hundreds of other people still recovering from the impacts of Typhoon Merbok because they aren’t retroactive. When the changes do go into effect March 22, 2024, the agency is hopeful that they’ll make recovery faster and easier for future disaster survivors.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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