Still waiting on Merbok aid, Shaktoolik braces for fall storms
By Stephen Lezak
SHAKTOOLIK—One year after ex-typhoon Merbok destroyed the 28-foot-tall berm that separated Shaktoolik from Norton Sound, residents look to autumn with a mix of fear and frustration. Without the berm’s protection, the village is dramatically more exposed to incoming storms.
Shaktoolik sits on a narrow rise of land, bordered by Norton Sound on side and by the Tagoomenik River on the other. In recent decades, erosion and worsening storms have led to widespread community discussions about increased vulnerability and whether to relocate the village entirely. Following a storm in 2013, Shaktoolik secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA for short, to build a berm in hopes of buying the community more time.
Shaktoolik was one of the hardest-hit villages during Merbok. Although the berm was almost entirely destroyed, residents assert that the berm did its job by protecting the village during the worst parts of the storm.
Today, all that remains of the original berm is a skinny ridge of lush grass overhanging an eroding dune two miles south of the village.
On a February call between the Shaktoolik City Council and FEMA, Eugene Asicksik, the mayor, explained to federal officials: “If we didn’t have that berm that we’ve worked on since 2014, I think we would have had a lot more damages to homes and other infrastructure in the village.”
“It would have probably taken us out,” a councilmember added.
Beginning in February, FEMA and the city government have met for weekly or biweekly teleconferences. FEMA has also conducted a field visit—both in the immediate aftermath of Merbok, and during three days of fly-in-fly-out meetings in June. Despite the extensive back-and-forth, Shaktoolik leadership remains confused and frustrated by the bureaucratic process and lack of clarity from FEMA about when funding will arrive, and in what amount. Over the summer, leaders gave up hope that the berm would be replaced in time for the 2023 storm season.
In the weeks following the storm, Kawerak-owned Tumet Industries hastily built a smaller replacement berm. Following guidance from FEMA prohibiting the use of wood in the berm, Tumet rebuilt the berm using only soil and gravel, leaving towering piles of driftwood on the beach. The original berm incorporated this driftwood.
Today, community members disagree whether or not it contributed to the berm’s stability.
“We know what works better than what FEMA down in Washington does,” said Genevieve Rock, development coordinator for the Shaktoolik tribal government. “It’s wrong of them to tell us we can’t use our natural resources when we know that’s what’s binding it together. It worked in the past and what worked in the past is what’s going to work today.”
The Native Village of Shaktoolik is now paying to shore up the smaller berm ahead of the storm season using the remnants of a federal grant awarded before Merbok struck. According to several community leaders, the current efforts are severely hampered by the lack of certain heavy equipment in the village and the lack of funding. The tribe has $155,000 in available funds, a fraction of the berm’s $3.3 million replacement cost.
“What we have there is better than not having anything,” Mayor Asicksik added.
Shaktoolik leaders remain unsure what exactly needs to happen for FEMA to provide financial assistance, adding to the frustration.
This reporter observed three calls between City of Shaktoolik leaders and FEMA officials between February and September. Each call focused heavily on technical and bureaucratic details, ranging from the “grade” of gravel to be used to the berm’s potential impact upon polar bear habitat. When Mayor Asicksik noted that a polar bear has not been sighted near Shaktoolik since 2012, a FEMA representative acknowledged his comment, then told the mayor, “We’re working on an approach, if you will, with our counterparts at Marine Fisheries as well as Fish & Wildlife offices.”
“There’s a big difference between the Western culture and the Alaska Native culture,” explained Rock, the tribal development coordinator. “The funding agencies want all these various plans in place prior to assisting our tribes and some tribes do not have the capacity to meet their requirements.”
Reached for comment by the Nugget, a FEMA spokesperson defended the agency’s process, but admitted that “FEMA recognizes and acknowledges that certain policies and programs do not currently fit the needs of all tribal nations.”
The spokesperson added that in FEMA declarations since 2017, tribal applicants have tended to receive their initial obligation of funds slightly faster than state, local, territorial and private non-profit applicants. “The median number of days from receipt of the applicant’s request for public assistance until their initial obligation is 317 days for tribal applicants, and 375 days for all other applicant types,” according to FEMA.
When asked about FEMA’s fly-in-fly-out protocol, the spokesman added, “Due to limited lodging availability, FEMA’s Public Assistance staff stayed in Nome as the team’s operations hub and flew into Shaktoolik and other villages on day trips to be less of a burden on the recovering communities while having a more efficient operation based out of a central location.”
The availability of lodging in Shaktoolik and the conspicuous cost of the day flights offended some community members, who expressed a preference for FEMA officials to stay in the community.
Rock added, “It would have been nice if they had stayed—if they would have even been here for a storm, boy… They need to see what we face.”