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As the last of the storm blows over, the state says it will begin to mobilize across dozens of communities

Hooper Bay on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
Lola Cernek
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Hooper Bay on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

The Alaska National Guard is activating all guardsmen in the western region of the state, and is deploying more to the area.

The Alaska National Guard Adjunct General Torrence Saxe said at a press conference on Sept. 18 that troops would help with debris removal and damage assessment. They’ll be sending additional guardsmen to Hooper Bay, Nome, and Bethel.

“It is critical to have boots on the ground,” Saxe said.

Saxe said that having troops in hub communities will allow them to deploy to smaller villages more quickly. The American Red Cross is also sending out volunteers. The state has identified five communities that have been impacted the most by the storm. Those are Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Golovin, Newtok, and Nome.

As of Sept. 18, three communities had a boil water advisory in effect: Elim, Unalakleet, and Hooper Bay. Also multiple communities, including Hooper Bay, had lost power at their airports.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said at the press conference that they’re hoping the recovery response moves quickly and efforts wrap up before freeze up begins in about three weeks.

“Wherever there is help that is needed, we'll be getting that out there as soon as possible,” Dunleavy said.

He issued a disaster declaration on Sept. 17 to free up state resources.

The damage from this storm ranges about a thousand miles, from the Kuskokwim Bay all the way up through the Bering Strait. University of Alaska Fairbanks climate expert Rick Thoman said that the distance of severe damage due to this storm is part of what made it unusual. So is the timing. It’s the strongest September storm since records began over 70 years ago.

“We had the absolute perfect set up for a big Bering Sea storm,” Thoman said.

He said that Typhoon Merbok formed in a part of the North Pacific where typhoons don’t usually form, since the water usually isn’t warm enough. But the water there was the warmest it had been in the last century.

“And after it developed and started moving north, then it moved over water that was as much as 7 degrees warmer than the long term normal. That is a dramatic difference from normal for the open ocean that is really amazing.”

Thoman said that as climate change continues to cause sea water temperatures to warm, storms like this one could become more common in Alaska. In Hooper Bay, a resident who identified themself as Ben called in to KYUK on Sept. 17 to describe the scene in the village. Hundreds were sheltering at the school due to severe damage and power outages.

“Now, this is a wake up call. We don't know what our future, but we can't be ignorant or ignore it also. So we need to face the facts and reality. These storms are getting worse and worse,” said Ben.

Also taking stock of the damage as the storm blows over is Rep. Mary Peltola. The state’s sole Congressional representative is from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, home to some of the hardest hit communities.

Peltola has been in touch with Dunleavy as well as the mayors of some of the hardest hit communities, and was briefed by FEMA yesterday afternoon.

She’s worried about the possibility of people’s subsistence harvests being damaged amid the flooding and power outages, as well as damage to infrastructure and equipment.

“And those are the kind of assessments that I'm going to be waiting patiently to, or not so patiently, actually, to start hearing back on," Peltola said.

Peltola said that she and Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan will be working on securing federal disaster funding.

Nina is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. She comes to Bethel from NPR, where she's a producer at Morning Edition.
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