Norton Sound communities call for aid amid series of violent storms
ANCHORAGE – A series of powerful winter storms devastated several communities in Western Alaska’s Norton Sound region.
Many were left without power, water and communications after the weekend storms subsided and by Tuesday, residents were still coming to grips with the damage.
“I saw a lot of ice. Ice all over,” said Kotlik resident Victor Tonuchuk. “I saw damage to the water and sewer pipings, I saw smoke houses and fish racks moved out of place and connex vans tipped over.”
Tonuchuk said he was in his boat when the weather moved in.
“When I saw what was coming in, I decided to stay in my boat all night, and watch my boat, so it didn’t get crushed or flooded,” he said. “I knew my boat would be useful to us that night.”
That feeling proved prescient: Tonuchuk was able to save lives with his boat.
“We ended up evacuating some folks from their homes near the river … and brought them to the school for shelter,” he said.
Tonuchuk said after the storm passed, and on into Tuesday, it was difficult to get around Kotlik, with boardwalks covered in ice that made walking and driving troublesome. Heat and water remained in short supply.
“People don’t have places to go,” he said. “They don’t have anywhere warm to go, they don’t have any heating appliances and no water. It’s very frightening to have something like this — flooding in the communities — especially when winter is here.”
Other Norton Sound communities were also hit hard by the storms: Stebbins, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik and more all experienced damage, power and water outages.
In Stebbins, sea ice and flooding washed out homes, boats, fish racks and camps along the beach. More than 200 people sought refuge in the community school after a forklift loader drove around town and brought people to safety.
Elsewhere, there was similar destruction.
“Unalakleet has lost its water system,” said Matt Ganley, vice president of resources and external affairs at Bering Straits Native Corporation. “They have a very long pipe that supplies water to the community that was blown out.”
Unalakleet City Manager Scott Dickens said that waterline ran parallel to the coastline. Erosion from the storm ate away at that coastline, taking the piping with it. Dickens said Unalakleet’s one million gallon water tank ensured there were several hundred thousand gallons in reserve.
The bigger problem, Dickens said, was the temporary berm that protected homes from the water. That was washed away by the storm.
Ganley said the water line in Unalakleet was already repaired once over the summer. Additional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants the community had applied for had yet to be approved.
“This storm has compounded a problem that had already been impacted from previous storms,” Ganley said.
North in Shaktoolik, a natural driftwood barrier was brought into the community by the storms.
“They’ve had driftwood in the fall that sets in and protects the area from this type of activity, but that driftwood seawall has been blown up into the village,” Ganley said. “It’s not going to afford any protection in the future.”
Ganley said communities in the region are looking for the state to move forward swiftly with repairs and assessments.
“I think there’s still a lot to be determined about the extent of the damage … we hope to be contacting the governor’s office shortly and requesting a disaster declaration for those cities on the coast,” he said.
Kotlik had already made a disaster declaration, Ganley said. Stebbins and Unalakleet would likely declare soon as well.
“I think we need to look at the infrastructure impacts, because that’s what’s going to impact people long term in these communities,” he said.
With supply lines “tenuous” in rural areas, Ganley said, time — and worsening weather — are working against relief efforts.
“Snow will be falling [soon] and it’s going to be really difficult to determine what the impacts have been if there’s a good snow cover,” he said. If evaluations aren’t done before the spring, “it pushes any efforts and any relief they may get for infrastructure that much further ahead, and may put us into next year’s storm system.”
The damage was still shaking Tonuchuk on Tuesday.
“Never in my life did I [think] I would do something like that and see something that devastating to our community,” he said.
The state Division of Emergency Management said it’s focused on “life safety needs,” putting damage assessment and repairs on hold. That’s as the National Weather Services forecasts another violent winter storm for the region as early as Wednesday.
Donations for Kotlik are currently being collected through the Red Cross of Alaska.
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