State Emergency Operations Center ready when disaster strikes
When disaster strikes in Alaska, the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s (DHSEM) State Emergency Operations Center is ready to respond, as it did this week to western Alaska.
Emergency management specialist Karl Edwards is ready to go when the call for help comes in.
“I always, always, always have my passport,” Edwards said.
His backpack is by his side with all the tools he might need.
“Communications are the hardest thing,” he said. “You’re going into a community and the telecommunications is gone.”
Regardless of the situation, he’s prepared to help Alaskans in their time of need, as are the other 61 people working for DHSEM.
“When bad things happen in Alaska and to Alaskans, we are the folks that we want anyone and everyone to call to come in and assist them with responding to the disaster — whether it be a natural disaster or man-made — and then recovering from that and getting the community back up on its feet,” said Mike Sutton, the division’s deputy director.
They are available 365 days a year, 24-7, and there is no shortage of disasters to keep them busy.
“Alaska seems to have more than its share of disasters, everything from — we have an active volcano going off right now in the Aleutians, we have winter storms that have impacted our communities recently, the big earthquake is the one that keeps us all awake at night and we think about,” Sutton explained.
And this week it was Savoonga that needed the help. It didn’t take long to find the destruction caused by winds on the scale of a category 1 hurricane.
“So we started down around this street here and just kind of worked our way around and these were some of the worst and this one was the one with the wall blown out,” Edwards said, pointing to a map of Savoonga.
One homeowner was forced to find another place to live.
“A little bit sad, because he had been working on it and it kind of turns his life upside down,” Edwards opined. “What do you do? Where do you go?”
The other damage wasn’t as obvious but still major — the assessors found 22 homes that were unlivable.
“The rest were kind of sneaky — you walk up to the home and saw it there might be a little bit of an angle, maybe frost heavy, you’d think or something,” Edwards explained. “You look a little closer at it, and you’d notice the foundation to the left and the house to the right and the utilities disconnected and the sewer and everything.”
It’ll take time to rebuild, but the community is sticking together and helping each other out. Despite the missing walls and empty store shelves, they were celebrating this week.
“The community is ecstatic because they just picked up a whale on Sunday night and they’re working on processing that and everyone’s getting their share and they’re really happy,” Edwards explained.
Orville Toolie and his crew landed the nearly 53-foot whale, according to local sources.
As for Edwards, the work’s not done. He’s back at his desk in Anchorage reviewing the damage assessment and preparing it for the governor’s office to make a decision on the emergency disaster declaration that is expected sometime in the next few weeks.
On average, the operations center coordinates recovery efforts for a major disaster every 90 days in Alaska.
DHSEM officials say we all play a role in preparing for disasters.
“When families have a family disaster plan, when they’ve built their seven-day disaster kit so they can live on their own and be self sufficient and actually be ready to help their neighbors that maybe haven’t done the planning that they have — that’s the key to success during the disaster,” Sutton said.
Visit the Ready.Alaska.gov website for instructions from the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs on how to build your emergency kit.
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