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Alaska’s “Perfect Storm” Points Out Glaring Holes in Environmental Justice
By Hal Shepherd
Let me be clear upfront. By writing this article, I do not want to downplay the loss in human suffering and infrastructure caused by recent hurricanes on the East Coast. But in the round-the-clock media coverage of Hurricane Ivan, which devoured a swath of coastal Florida this week, another storm closer to home for Alaskans has gone largely unnoticed. Two weeks ago, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok roared into the North Bering Sea, generating 90 mph winds and 54-foot seas. Alaska’s largest storm in at least 50 years, Merbok slammed into west coast communities with a record storm surge at 11 to 15 feet above normal high tide.
The resulting flooding inundated the lower sections of many villages, engulfing schools, power plants, airport runways, and homes. Combined with tremendous winds, flooding knocked out power, cut off drinking water, lifted homes and fish camps off foundations, and carried away fish drying racks, boats, and other vehicles. The tiny village of Golovan, located at the Northeastern tip of Norton Bay, was one of the worst hit. Residents face a cleanup of homes inundated with sand mixed with spilled diesel fuel and sewage, and the destruction of machinery and equipment due to seawater. According to an article in the Alaska Daily News, “[S]sand is now everywhere. Sand shorn from the coastline and redeposited in the worst of places: inside houses, burying outbuildings, choking the engines of idled snowmachines and four-wheelers buried to their handlebars.”
In the city of Nome, the historic Front Street flooded, roads washed away, and high winds damaged homes and buildings. In one instance, a house was photographed floating down the snake river before it rammed a bridge, where it remained until it disintegrated under the force of water that reached many times normal peak flow.
The timing of the storm was also catastrophic for sub-arctic communities. Not only is freeze-up right around the corner, but many freezers full of fish, meat, berries, and other items from an entire summer of subsistence harvesting floated away. And coming so early in the fall, Merbok could be just the beginning of the fall typhoon season.
The good news is that, immediately after the storm, relief from all over the state in the form of food, water, clothing, building materials, tools, power generators, and yes, toilet paper poured into the villages. Also, emergency agencies, including FEMA and Homeland Security, were on the scene for the worst-hit communities shortly after the waters receded, promising help rebuilding, defending, and re-locating infrastructure and homes. The bad news for Alaska Native communities is that such promises typically only go so far.
The timing of Merbok and Ivan points out a classic environmental justice failure in our current system for rebuilding after superstorms. Even before Hurricane Ivan crashed into the Florida coast, for example, President Biden had already scheduled a meeting with Governor Ron DeSantis promising billions in aid for the aftermath recovery efforts. Then after the storm left Florida, the president was on the radio again promising the same thing for South Carolina as the storm lumbered towards that state.
Conversely, while Arctic Native communities are experiencing increased permafrost melt, loss of sea ice, extreme weather events, flooding, and erosion, making some residences and settlements uninhabitable, current federal disaster relief and hazard mitigation resources are not inherently meant for these communities. This is primarily due to competition for limited federal disaster and hazard mitigation funding between such small communities and large cities like Fort Myers and Charleston. In many cases, when approaching federal disaster agencies for help, for example, the agencies require Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMP) that include detailed cost-benefit analysis, environmental analysis, and other measures before such communities qualify to apply for funds. Such communities, however, often lack funding to hire sufficient staff or consultants to conduct such analysis and other planning efforts.
The other glaring irony presented by the recent ocean storms is climate change. This is because due to the Earth’s warming oceans, more storms including, “Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017, Hurricanes Michael and Florence in 2018 and Hurricane Ida in 2021” and, most recently, Ian have been undergoing a process called “rapid intensification defined as an increase of 30 knots, or 35 m.p.h., in a hurricane’s maximum sustained winds over a 24-hour period.”
While not technically considered a hurricane, Typhoon Merbok appears to have undergone a similar intensification. Merbok’s strength and its assault on Western Alaska was likely exacerbated by a warming ocean. The storm originated east of Japan in the unusually warm north-central Pacific, where, historically, few typhoons form because the water there is typically too cold.
Merbok gained strength as it traveled over the western Bering Sea, which is similarly experiencing temperatures that are above normal. Then, when it met the cooler waters of Alaska’s eastern Bering Sea, the temperature difference created the “perfect storm,” allowing its wind speeds to become even higher.
With climate change driving these increasingly intense, costly storms, politics inevitably come into play. Ian for example is the latest among the increasingly brutal storms the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has begun referring to as, “billion-dollar disasters.” “In 2021, the agency tallied 20 of them, leaving a total of $152.6 billion in damages. That was the third-costliest year in U.S. history, after 2017 (the year of Harvey, with damages of $366 billion) and 2005 (the year of Katrina, with damages of nearly $249 billion). 
Therefore, it seems to defy reason that the Republican party continues to do everything in their power to avoid mitigating climate change including the transition to clean energy. This was a major factor in preventing Congress from passing the Build Back Better (BBB) bill. The recent adoption of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), after bitter partisan political wrangling, has a price tag of $369 billion over the next ten years. But at $37 billion a year, that’s considerably less than the cost of one major hurricane.
Similarly, while most front-line Alaska Native villages openly acknowledge the existence of climate change, and in many cases are taking the lead in the efforts to mitigate climate impacts, politicians in ruby red states can continue to obstruct progress in addressing climate change and then hold their hand out for federal dollars when increasingly powerful hurricanes ravage their cities. This is exactly what Governor DeSantis was doing even before Ian made landfall in Florida, even though, as a congressman in 2013, he was one of 67 house republicans who voted against the same aid for New York and New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Here in Alaska, while Governor Duleavey asked for federal assistance after Merdok, it is unclear how much funding will eventually trickle down to the most vulnerable communities. At the same time, Dunleavy, alongside other political leaders, continues to obstruct progress on reducing the state’s carbon emissions. For example, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Representative Don Young refused to support the BBB or IRA legislation. In fact, Senator Murkowski has said that because of “high energy prices, mounting inflation, and declining economic growth,” oil and gas from Alaska should continue to contribute to spewing carbon into the atmosphere “long into the future.”
Merbok is the proverbial two-by-four that has hit Alaskans between the eyes about the realities of climate change. We can no longer sit on our hands while hurricanes, forest fires, and other climate-driven natural disasters hammer the state. In addition, we need to send a message to the climate-denying obstructionists in Congress and vote them out of office. This includes Alaska’s political leadership unless they stop turning environmental justice principles on their head and admit how detrimental resource extraction activities are to the culture and welfare of the state’s Native communities.
In the meantime, hopefully this time federal and state promises of assistance to help communities recover from Merbok will materialize. You can also help by donating to the Western Alaska Disaster Recovery Fund at https://alaskacf.org/.../western-ak-disaster-recovery.../... sponsored by the Alaska Community Foundation to help communities in need now and to prepare for future storms.
 Billion-dollar disasters.