The complicated road to recovery after Merbok
The complicated road to recovery after Merbok
By Peter Loewi
As soon as the flood waters receded, residents across the region began clearing debris, rebuilding roads and addressing their needs going into winter. Even now, two months after ex-Typhoon Merbok struck western Alaska, the process of applying for disaster assistance left many confused.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration and the State of Alaska extended their deadline for individual disaster relief applications until December 6, 2022. These are two separate application processes, and applicants may be referred to the Small Business Administration for a third application. Survivors of Typhoon Merbok are not required to take out a loan if they are referred to the SBA but failing to fill out that application will result in a denial of assistance from FEMA.
As of November 22, 2022, FEMA had received 1,086 applications and granted more than $5 million to eligible parties, 694 so far. The State of Alaska has only recently begun their review process.
There are two main types of assistance: Individual Assistance and Public Assistance. If you or your family are applying for damage to a house or camp, that’s IA. PA is for local governments, tribes, and some non-profits. FEMA does not offer assistance to businesses, instead referring them to the SBA.
FEMA and the state both have individual assistance programs which can cover slightly different things. FEMA does not provide disaster assistance to rebuild non-primary residences. While this might make sense as a national policy for vacation homes in Florida destroyed by hurricanes, in Alaska, that means that subsistence cabins are not covered. The state’s individual assistance program does cover subsistence structures, but the state can only begin considering claims after applicants have finished their claims in FEMA’s program. Camp items lost such as four-wheelers or snowmachines, fishing or hunting gear, and fuel, are eligible for assistance from both programs. On a call hosted by Kawerak, SBA Public Information Officer Kevin Wynne said that it was vitally important that survivors apply to both FEMA’s and the state’s programs.
SBA offers long-term, low-interest disaster loans for businesses, nonprofits, homeowners and renters. The loans may cover losses not fully compensated by insurance or other sources. Even if people don’t want a loan, they are encouraged to fill out an application. “You are not required to take out a loan, but failure to fill out the application may prevent you from receiving certain types of FEMA funding,” says a FEMA update.
Businesses cannot receive money from FEMA’s individual assistance programs. They are encouraged to apply SBA loans as well.
Those who aren’t eligible for a loan are then sent back to FEMA. Wynne explained that “after registering with FEMA if an applicant’s income meets a certain threshold (according to federal poverty levels) they are automatically referred to SBA- but kept with FEMA if it does not. If they apply for an SBA loan and are approved, then they have sixty days to either decide to accept the loan or decide not to accept. If, a survivor is declined for an SBA loan, the survivor may be referred to FEMA’s ONA [other needs assistance.]”
Most unfavorable determinations come down to lack of documentation: proof of insurance; proof of occupancy; proof of ownership; or failure to file an application with the SBA. “No does not necessarily mean no,” FEMA’s Public Information Officer Thomas Kempton said. It usually just means that some documentation is missing, and the Alaska hotline number provides case management and an opportunity for applicants to resubmit that missing information. There is an appeals process.
Kempton wrote via email that “FEMA is flexible in determination of ownership especially in smaller villages where there might be generations of past and future ownership that may not have had what would be considered legal documentation of Deeds of Ownership or rental or mortgage paperwork. Our inspectors have been working directly with the village/town officials to get proof of occupancy and ownership on this event. And the Inspectors in a new rule specific to Alaska have been assisting with registration efforts as they travel to isolated villages. To my knowledge this is the first time they have assisted in this way.”
The state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Outreach Branch Chief Michelle Torres explained that “the recovery process can be long, especially when it comes to Public Assistance and the repair of infrastructure.” Casework began last week for the state’s individual assistance program.
Even with all the assistance out there, the process is lengthy, and many are deterred by the amount of paperwork or fall through the cracks. This is especially true when the status of the entity applying for aid is a private non-profit.
Many non-profits are not considered critical, which means that FEMA refers them to the SBA. In an email to the Nugget, State Emergency Management Specialist Jonathan Zeppa wrote that this means “they must also apply for an SBA Loan and are approved for less than the cost to repair damages before they can continue as an applicant in the Public Assistance Grant Program for damages not covered by SBA.” For disasters such as Merbok, “the State follows FEMA Policy as well as FEMA’s determinations on the eligibility of applicants and damages with very few exceptions to this policy.”
Torres continued with a sobering reminder. “The Public Assistance process is only just beginning and will likely take years to complete all projects that will be written for this disaster. PA applicants will be and have been encouraged to take whatever measures they can to ensure a speedy recovery while keeping in mind that the Public Assistance program is a reimbursement program.”
One such non-profit referred to the SBA for a loan is Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation. The floating docks in Shaktoolik were swept several miles inland during the storm, and as of their board meeting earlier this month, had decided not to apply for a loan.
Similarly, Norton Sound Health Corporation opted not to apply for any assistance, although there was flood damage at both Nuuk and the old clinic in Golovin. Most of NSHC’s damages actually happened in Diomede. “In Diomede, the shipping container containing furniture, fixtures, and equipment for the new clinic was washed away,” reported Reba Lean, public relations manager at NSHC. NSHC is filing an insurance claim for this.
Through the Rasmuson Foundation, NSHC was connected to Direct Relief, which awarded NSHC $160,000 for Diomede medical equipment. These funds will be used to help fly the equipment to Diomede once it is replaced.
Another entity that ended up with private aid was the Native Village of Solomon. The Solomon shelter cabin on the Nome-Council Highway and the Iditarod Trail was swept off its foundation and floated about four miles inland. “For it not to be there, it’s a devastation for the route and the people. Huge,” Deilah Johnson said, explaining that the Native Village of Solomon had built the cabin where it was to aid travelers between Nome and outlying villages.
Johnson, Solomon’s Environmental Coordinator, said that the village was cognizant of competing for resources with other tribes, and being a smaller tribe, opted not to pursue some of those funding opportunities. Instead, they received private funding, from the Alaska Venture Fund, to move the cabin back and close the Bed and Breakfast for the winter. But with construction companies competing for lucrative contracts like rebuilding the roads and preparing for winter, Johnson said that the Native Village of Solomon has been stuck waiting for someone’s calendar to open to do the actual towing.
The storm, which wiped out access to Solomon, meant that all reservations at the B&B had to be cancelled. With the place fully booked for six weeks after Merbok hit, Johnson estimated about $15,000 in lost revenue, a huge hit to the only unrestricted funds the Native Village has. As they look to rebuild, Johnson said they have to consider that storms may come in the future posing more risks.
Further down the trail, the Topkok Shelter Cabin escaped damage, but its newly built outhouse had been washed inland by the floods. “With winter on its way and the darkness, safety cabins have to be there,” Nome Kennel Club President Stephanie Johnson said. The club is contemplating moving the shelter cabin to higher ground.
Shelter cabins weren’t the only things impacted. Nome Kennel Club volunteers in June finished a much-needed project of putting up new reflectorized tripods along the Iditarod trail between Nome and Topkok. With a grant from the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance the Nome Kennel Club bought timbers, reflective materials and hardware to erect 200 new tripods on the stretch of trail that is notoriously dangerous and exposed to high winds and ground storms. Between mile 15 and the Bonanza Bridge, a 17-mile coastal stretch, there were only 10 tripods left standing.
Because of NKC’s non-profit status, the club is not eligible for Individual Assistance, and they were referred to the SBA for a loan, said Johnson. Members of the NKC board attended meetings with state and federal disaster assistance agencies and were told that filling out the extensive paperwork wouldn’t mean their application would be successful.
At the Nome Kennel Club’s annual meeting on December 9 discussing the way forward will definitely be a top priority, Johnson said. In the meantime, the club is planning a fundraiser and intend to reach out to local entities for assistance to replace the lifesaving trail markings. The Alaska Dept. of Transportation’s public information officer said in an email that a federally funded program exists to fund and support rural communities to mark public winter trails, but the application period for fiscal year 2023 has closed and there is no emergency trail marker replacement funding available at this time.
Search and rescue volunteers in both Nome and White Mountain said that loss of the tripods makes winter travel, especially in bad weather, more difficult and riskier. Once snow is on the ground, the trail is marked with trail stakes, with the Nome Volunteer Fire Department staking the trail from Nome to Topkok, and the White Mountain and Golovin Volunteer Fire Departments staking from Topkok to White Mountain and then to Golovin.
That process will begin soon, but with unseasonable warmth and rain, neither have been able to check the status of the trail off the road. “That’s what worries me more,” said NVFD Chief Jim West Jr., referring to the stretch from Solomon to Topkok.
The big thing both West and White Mountain’s Dan Harrelson agreed on is the importance of trip planning and letting people know where travelers are going, when they expect to arrive and what route they plan to take. “Let the Troopers, a VPSO, or family members know when and where you’re going and when you’re expecting to be back, and how much gas you have, among other things. Also consider getting an inReach or other satellite communication device, which eliminates a lot of guessing for SaR efforts,” said West.
FEMA set up an Alaska-specific hotline to answer questions about FEMA’s aid and the SBA loans and help with case management. That center can be reached Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 1-866-342-1699. The State’s application can be completed by calling 1-844-445-7131.