by Vivian Korthuis
October 17, 2022: Testimony of Vivian Korthuis, CEO of AVCP.
Here are the lessons learned during Typhoon Merbok. These observations and recommendations are in the hope that we will be better prepared for the next big storm in the Bering Sea that will hit our villages. I will talk about 6 different categories of concerns.
Number one: prediction and immediate response is necessary to get an idea of what may happen in advance and exactly what is happening in real time.
a. The safety of life. Without a public safety presence in all of our communities, the safety of residents’ lives falls to tribal leaders, search and rescue volunteer teams or village elders. This role is essential to the community’s sense of security in times of crisis. In the end, a community emergency plan without the resources and infrastructure on the ground remains useless. We were very lucky during Typhoon Merbok that there was no loss of life in our villages.
b. Immediate community assessments. AVCP staff conducted an immediate assessment of all Village staff and AVCP leased spaces. AVCP has also set up a point of contact (POC) for tribes and tribal members to call and report new and ongoing issues. The AVCP POC coordinated daily with the National Guard and the State of Alaska. The AVCP has also conducted other assessments to assist with emergency federal funding. It is clear that without good regional coordination, it was difficult to coordinate all the necessary evaluation activities.
The Alaska State National Guard conducted 17 community assessments in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. These assessments included reviewing any damage to community infrastructure, including clinics, schools, etc., and assessing communications, including telephone, internet, etc. The National Guard’s assessment provided a broader or regional sense of Typhoon Merbok’s impact at the community level. . Overall, this highlighted the need to have a ‘regional’ idea of the impact of the disaster. The regional picture is essential in determining the scale of the disaster. The AVCP recommends that the Western Alaska Emergency Response Center be built in the area to assist tribes in the event of an emergency.
Number Two: Individual, Community and Regional Emergency Preparedness is essential in anticipation of the next big storm which we know will arrive sooner rather than later. In every village, it is essential to address emergency preparedness. Lessons learned from Typhoon Merbok have highlighted things that need to be implemented immediately in every village.
a. Emergency Drinking Water. Every community depends on clean water to drink. When our villages were flooded, the system in place to produce drinking water was compromised or failed. When salty ocean water enters the drinking water system, the health of the entire community is at risk. Every village needs a salt water purification system.
b. Emergency Communications. During and after the storm, communications were essential. When the landline telephone, mobile telephone, internet, VHF radio and electricity are down, it impacts communication within the village or with outside resources. The village will suffer alone without emergency communications, especially during nighttime emergencies or in winter when daylight is limited. If our villages had proper public security, an emergency communication system could be set up under their direction. Every village needs an emergency communication system.
vs. Emergency equipment and workspace. When an emergency arises, it is essential to have the appropriate equipment in advance already in the village. Our communities do not have EMTs or local fire departments or equipment. So it makes sense to have at least some sort of emergency equipment kit for the village. This includes a generator, communications gear, safety gear, boats, snowmobiles, ATVs, building materials, hammers and nails as examples of what these emergency gear sets already need in the village. In the context of a small community in rural Alaska, it is also necessary to identify the space to make repairs in the appropriate setting. In winter, it is more difficult due to the cold temperatures to carry out work outside.
D. Coaching. A complete emergency response system is required with all components intact for EACH village. It would also be necessary to have all the proper training in place to operate emergency equipment, communications and infrastructure needs. In villages that do not have orderlies or clinics, SARs could be trained as paramedics.
e. Village airports. During the storm, we were fortunate that there were no seriously injured or injured people requiring emergency medical evacuation. Imagine if we had a medium-sized village with over 600 residents that needed to be evacuated at the same time. And if that happened during the winter, we would also have to worry about the ocean not freezing. There is no more shore ice to keep the storms offshore. This therefore means that our airports become critical infrastructure in the event of an emergency along the Bering Sea coast. Our communities do not have roads that lead outside of our villages. We are not on the road network. Airports must meet minimum requirements to accommodate aircraft large enough to assist with evacuation or provide community assistance when needed.
Number three: local infrastructure and individual ownership. Damage in the villages included houses falling off their foundations; torn roofs; porches destroyed; damaged fuel tanks; broken windows; damaged vehicles, ATVs and boats; damaged sewers and power lines; plank rides and compromised roads; and debris everywhere. The spirit and strength of communities to come to terms with the loss and begin to repair the damage is being tested. Rebuilding a community is not an easy task. Any damaged or lost infrastructure will need appropriate resources to rebuild. Each household that has been damaged will also need the appropriate resources to rebuild. This includes all the structures and equipment we use to maintain our subsistence lifestyle.
a. Graves/burial sites. High winds and water damaged graves and burial sites in low-lying areas along the Bering Sea coast. We have villages where coffins are placed above ground due to permafrost or water in the ground. These coffins are anchored to the ground. During the storm, there were burial sites where water moved coffins in the community. There may be burial sites where this has not yet been assessed.
Number Four: Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. For Alaska, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management location is based in Anchorage, with access to complete an online disaster assistance request at ready.alaska.gov. I recommend that DHSM be more accessible and present in rural Alaska, especially because our villages have problems with the Internet. I recommend that DHSM formally partner with tribes and tribal organizations to better coordinate disaster preparedness and response in the future. One of the practical issues that need to be addressed is helping rural residents and tribal members to complete paperwork when internet is limited or non-existent in villages and the need to help people face to face in circumstances stressful emergencies in their own native language. AVCP staff have conducted training by the state and will be available in 30 villages across the region to help tribal members complete the individual state and FEMA applications that are required to obtain damage reimbursement through funding for disaster relief. This is the type of partnership that could be developed for better operations in the future.
Number Five: Search and Rescue. Typhoon Merbok has highlighted the need for public safety in each of our villages. He also stressed the need for search and rescue services not only at the village level, but at the regional level. All the SAR teams in our villages are volunteers. During a disaster, when there is a need for SAR, volunteers worry not only for their own family, but for their whole community. If the SAR does not have the necessary communication tools or equipment, they are at a disadvantage. Local SARS has the local knowledge to not only plan, but also to help state or federal emergency management respond to the situation in real time. Each village has a right hand and a left hand – public security and clinics, both are needed to help the whole community. We cannot operate with one hand tied behind our back in an emergency.
Number six: AVCP’s work helping the tribes in our area. AVCP works closely with the State of Alaska, FEMA, Red Cross, Alaska National Guard, and tribal emergency contacts within the 48 communities AVCP serves. Our first priority was to ensure that hard-hit communities made arrangements to receive essential services such as shelter, food, water and hygiene items. Many of these were generously donated by outside organizations, which would not be possible without the cargo donations from airlines in our surrounding area to transport the donated items to these rural communities.