Fairbanks Daily News Miner: FEMA grants full cost waiver for western Alaska response

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pick up the full cost for all eligible storm recovery efforts in western Alaska over the next 30 days, according an announcement from the White House.

The decision follows a joint request from Alaska’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Rep. Mary Peltola, along with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office, urging President Joe Biden to waive the state’s share of costs.

Murkowski, who visited five impacted communities over the weekend, told the News-Miner Thursday a full waiver will benefit recovery efforts.

“This means additional flexibility and ability to move more quickly and readily in response,” Murkowski said. “The delegation was ... impressing that when a disaster like Typhoon Merbok hits an area like western Alaska, it does not mean we have unlimited time to work on an emergency response.”

The White House granted a similar waiver to Puerto Rico over the weekend after the U.S. territory was slammed by Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane. The federal government earmarked $40 million for hurricane recovery efforts.

The Alaska Department of Transportation estimated infrastructure repairs alone could exceed $15 million.

Murkowski said the biggest concern is weather as winter sets in.

“It’s just a matter of weeks in which you can execute any level of response to this disaster,” Murkowski said. “After that, the ice has come in, and you can’t move freight in or out, whether it’s construction or supplies or fuel. You’re locked in until the spring.”

Murkowksi noted the level of damage “was different in every community.”

“What you saw in Golovin was that the flooding had just moved houses off their foundations and had saturated insulation under homes with diesel fuel,” Murkowski said. “And there was sand everywhere.”

Elim, she said, had a different scene.

“The storm surge literally ripped Front Street apart and peeled the asphalt off the road like a piece of ribboned taffy and tossed it onto the beach,” Murkowski said.

Storm surges and winds damaged fishing skiffs and boats in Hooper Bay and Chevak, “scattering them for what seemed like miles in every direction” and ripped tin coverings off buildings’ roofs.

A major impact across the board for the region was the loss of frozen subsistence foods, including berries, meat and fish after the storm knocked out electricity.

The White House described the response as an “increase in the level of federal funding for emergency protective measures undertaken in the State of Alaska as a result of a severe storm, flooding and landslides” that caused devastation across 1,000 miles of western Alaska’s coastal communities, including Nome and Bethel.

Flying supplies in, while an option, can be cost prohibitive for rural Alaska.

Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration for the region on Sept. 17, and the federal government followed suit on Sept. 23 after the governor sent a request.

In requesting FEMA’s waiver of all eligible costs, Sullivan applied political pressure in the Senate and agreed to drop his hold on a short-term continuing funding resolution to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Sullivan told The Hill Tuesday that he forced the issue and that poverty rates in western Alaska are similar to Puerto Rico.

Alaska mobilized 160 National Guard and State Defense Force members to assist with the recovery effort, and the Alaska Department of Transportation issued funds for contractors to address major infrastructure damage before the winter season sets in.

Murkowski said the response at the state and local levels have been solid.

“We may look to FEMA for the assistance, but as important as they are, it’s the local folks working with the state and federal partners that are impressive in coming together to address a very challenging situation quickly,” Murkowski said.

By:  Jack Barnwell
Source: Fairbanks Daily News Miner