Even before Merbok, Alaska Native villages were in harm’s way

A trail of coastal flooding reveals gaps in government support to address climate threats

Robert “Bobby” Amarok, 74, warms up next to his wood stove after knee-high floodwaters rushed into his Golovin home, September 16, destroying his heater and so much more. | Photo by Jenni Monet

Robert “Bobby” Amarok, 74, warms up next to his wood stove after knee-high floodwaters rushed into his Golovin home, September 16, destroying his heater and so much more. | Photo by Jenni Monet

Robert “Bobby” Amarok could see the storm building out his kitchen window.   Through paneless glass, he looked straight out onto Golovnin Lagoon where his daughter Lisa used to swim as a girl.  That was way before the village’s shoreline started slipping to slow and steady erosion.

But after the typhoon, there was nothing gradual about the massive waves that slammed into the beach.  Chomped away were giant clumps of seaside sod exposing a dramatic underlayer of frozen soil.  For Amarok, his daughter, and many others in Golovin, it was the first time any had laid eyes on so much permafrost.  When the rain finally stopped, the now-naked icy ground was literally sweating in the exposed elements.  

The tropical storm system, Merbok, that moved into Western Alaska two weekends ago met an Arctic ecosystem that climate scientists say is very different from just a few decades back.  Air and ocean temperatures, intimately synchronized with the formation of annual sea ice, have become warmer and more disruptive compared to a similar squall that pounded the region almost fifty years prior.

Amarok remembers the Bering Sea Storm of 1974 like it was yesterday.  “A big one,” he said.  “But there was sea ice that time.”  Then as now, he looked out his window in disbelief at floodwaters surrounding his home less than a mile from shore.  “The water had never run up that high before,” Amarok, 74, said.  In his mind, that’s when Golovin’s seasonal surges started to change, if not intensify.  “Almost every year, now, there’s water that comes up real high.”

Chunks of seaside sod knocked down by Typhoon Merbok expose a dramatic underlayer of permafrost on the beach of Golovin, Alaska. | Photo by Jenni Monet

Chunks of seaside sod knocked down by Typhoon Merbok expose a dramatic underlayer of permafrost on the beach of Golovin, Alaska. | Photo by Jenni Monet

The threat of frequent coastal flooding has not been lost on community leaders.  Some of the most severe surges are documented in the City of Golovin's relocation plan, a work-in-progress funded by a state grant.  But Mayor of Golovin, Charlie Black, says it's really more of an expansion project. The idea isn’t to move the entire community, he said, but to build a new subdivision for some of its 150 residents – Elders like Bobby Amarok who knows he needs to live somewhere that's safer and on higher ground.

Golovin’s planning effort and restrategizing over the years is emblematic in how Native villages are responding to frontline challenges where sea level rise is happening faster in the Arctic more than anywhere else, and where the impacts are demographically lopsided.  Of all the communities faced with chronic erosion, flooding, or rapidly melting permafrost, the majority are Alaska Native villages. 

According to the Denali Commission, the independent federal agency for Alaska economic affairs, it found a total of 73 federally-recognized tribes out of 229 that face climate impacts at rates exceeding any other Alaska community.  It means these villages are more threatened than the rest in losing critical infrastructure, ancestral subsistence lands, or even human life.  

The 73 Native Villages Identified by the Denali Commission as Highly Threatened by Erosion, Flooding, or Thawing Permafrost, as of 2019. | Map by the Government Accounting Office

The 73 Native Villages Identified by the Denali Commission as Highly Threatened by Erosion, Flooding, or Thawing Permafrost, as of 2019. | Map by the Government Accounting Office

But these coastal communities, like Golovin, a traditional Iñupiat village, have largely struggled to find relief.  For all the hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending devoted to helping address the effects of a warming planet, the GAO has found few, if any, success stories.   And it’s not a new problem.  Since 2009, when auditors first called attention to at least  31 imminently threatened villages in Alaska, they have repeatedly urged Congress to pass policies to help streamline the process, making it easier to deliver solutions to the most environmentally vulnerable.  So far, lawmakers have been slow to act.

Alaska's senior U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and newly-elected Representative Mary Peltola arrived in Golovin the day after National Guard servicemen and women hauled away a freezer that had floated onto the school's playground – the stockpile of moose meat, dried trout, and bags of blueberries were a sorry loss.

Both politicians were in Washington D.C. when the typhoon struck. For Rep. Peltola, a Yup'ik daughter raised on subsistence fishing, top of mind was the toll the storm had taken on Native food caches. Hunted, gathered, and stored across the seasons, the harvests were now lost mere weeks ahead of winter.

"There's been talk of the importance of replacing freezers," Peltola said at a recent town hall style meeting in Nome with Murkowski and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. "But we know that doesn't replace salmon, and halibut," she said with a sense of assurance. "We're working on it."

At-Large U.S. House Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) speaks at a public meeting held in Nome on September 24 with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. | Photo by Jenni Monet

At-Large U.S. House Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) speaks at a public meeting held in Nome on September 24 with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. | Photo by Jenni Monet

For the first time, Alaska Natives have one of their own in Peltola to advocate for needs that Congress has long overlooked or gotten wrong. But her range of influence has yet to be realized. She has only until January to complete the term left vacant by the late Congressman Don Young. And she is running for the next full term. How voters feel Peltola has weathered this latest storm could help secure her seat.

Whether anyone balks over her recent support for the Willow project, an oil and gas deal loathed by environmentalists, is anyone's guess. In Republican-leaning Alaska, it could actually help seal her historic election victory, even though she is a Democrat. She's already won over her conservative colleague, Sen. Murkowski, who is also up for re-election.

In contrast, neither candidate carries an agenda which speaks directly to the climate questions that have lingered after the storm: In the fastest-warming place on the planet, how seriously should we accept extreme weather as our new normal? And how best should we be preparing for it?

For Murkowski's part, she leans on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that she championed last fall which allocates around $130 million for community relocation projects and $86 million for climate resiliency efforts – relatively small pots of funding when considering the estimated 13 million people in the U.S. who the National Climate Assessment predicts will need to escape sea level rise in their lifetime.

"We have a lot of work to do on our long game," admitted Rep. Peltola but also added that she'd only been on the job twelve days.

The GAO’s most recent call for climate response reform came just as Golovin was starting to pick up the pieces left in Merbok’s path.  On Monday, September 19, a new watchdog report was released, calling attention to the fiscal risks facing the federal government in reacting to extreme weather events as opposed to planning and preparing for them.  “Managing climate change is on [the GAO’s High Risk List] in part because of concerns about the increasing costs of disaster response and recovery efforts,” the report said.  

Roughly $315 billion dollars in federal spending have gone to respond to communities across the country battling drought, wildfires, flooding, or violent storms – and that’s just between 2015 to 2021.  In the Norton Sound region where Golovin is situated, disaster estimates have reached $40 million dollars from 2004 to 2011. With these costs projected to increase, it has many environmental practitioners wondering what it will take to enhance climate resilience programs.

Twyla Thurmond, an Inupiaq consultant with the relocation assistance group, Climigration Network, says the recent typhoon should be a wake-up call to politicians. “It’s like the flooding literally has to hit their doorstep to blink an eye at it,” said Thurmond. 

A former planner for her home community of Shishmaref, situated on the eroding barrier island of Sarichef off the Chukchi Sea, Thurmond has experienced first-hand how gaps in government funding and response rates are like treating severe wounds with mere Band-Aids.  Three years ago, after giant waves made impassable the only road to the village dump, FEMA aid was able to re-open the critical infrastructure.  “But there wasn’t funding to protect it for the next storm season,” said Thurmond.  

After Merbok, 100 feet of Shishmaref’s eroding sanitation road washed away.  Repairs came in the form of repurposed rock revetments taken from some other segment protecting some other portion of the road.  Three volunteers carried out the work (a new Band-Aid), but their noble efforts are far from a long-term solution. 

In the wake of the typhoon, the State of Alaska and the federal government both declared disasters that will unlock millions of dollars in aid to help communities with ongoing recovery efforts – from temporary housing and home repairs to low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and businesses recover from the disaster, according to President Biden’s declaration.   The Bureau of Indian Affairs will also distribute $2.6 million to 45 federally-recognized tribes in the region – $50,000 for each village for emergency supplies that may not be covered by Alaska’s Individual Assistance Program or FEMA, and an additional $10 million to each village for potable water.  

But none of these funds will meet the estimated $2 million dollars that Shishmaref planners say it will take to rebuild their sanitation road.  For that, the community will continue to navigate a dizzying maze of bureaucracy to seek funding from grant programs spread across multiple federal, state, and tribal agencies – and from few that are designed specifically to facilitate the unique needs facing Alaska Native communities.

Huge waves created by the ex-typhoon Merbok crashed onto West Beach near Gambell. | Photo by Chris Kooonooka

Huge waves created by the ex-typhoon Merbok crashed onto West Beach near Gambell. | Photo by Chris Kooonooka

Nathan Weyiouanna's house slid onto the beach during a 2005 storm in Shishmaref, Alaska | Photo by Diana Haecker, AP

Nathan Weyiouanna's house slid onto the beach during a 2005 storm in Shishmaref, Alaska | Photo by Diana Haecker, AP

Roads and structures were heavily damaged in Shishmaref during a storm in the first week of November 2017. | Photo by City of Shishmaref

Roads and structures were heavily damaged in Shishmaref during a storm in the first week of November 2017. | Photo by City of Shishmaref

Surging water from Typhoon Merbok flooded several structures and vehicles in Napakiak on September 17, 2022. | Photo by Bethany Hale

Surging water from Typhoon Merbok flooded several structures and vehicles in Napakiak on September 17, 2022. | Photo by Bethany Hale

Flooding in Newtok on Saturday 17, 2022. | Photo by Lucinta Ivon

Flooding in Newtok on Saturday 17, 2022. | Photo by Lucinta Ivon

The typhoon destroyed Shaktoolik’s berm and drew in a dramatic pile of driftwood. | Photo by Gloria Andrew

The typhoon destroyed Shaktoolik’s berm and drew in a dramatic pile of driftwood. | Photo by Gloria Andrew

Alaska National Guard servicemen work with the Native Village of Chevak to remove a boat stuck on the beach as part of Operation Merbok Response, Sept. 22, 2022. | Photo by Senior Airman Emily Batchelor for Alaska National Guard

Alaska National Guard servicemen work with the Native Village of Chevak to remove a boat stuck on the beach as part of Operation Merbok Response, Sept. 22, 2022. | Photo by Senior Airman Emily Batchelor for Alaska National Guard

A fish camp in the Nome area, seen on Sept. 24, shows damages wreaked by the remnants of Typhoon Merbok. | Photo by Jeremy Edwards for FEMA

A fish camp in the Nome area, seen on Sept. 24, shows damages wreaked by the remnants of Typhoon Merbok. | Photo by Jeremy Edwards for FEMA

Golovin Storm Damage* 2004-2022
(*Damage estimates are regional to the Norton Sound | Source: Draft Relocation and Subdivision Planning Report | Golovin, AK)

Stock Image of Bering Sea

Stock Image of Bering Sea

October 2004: The storm carried 59 mph winds and 10.5 feet high tides causing severe flooding and erosion in Golovin.

Est. Damage: $12.5 M*

Photo by Nat'l Weather Service

Photo by Nat'l Weather Service

September 2005: This storm produced a "flood of record" with roads covered in 3 feet of water. Federal and state disaster declared.

Est. Damage: $3.2M*

Photo by John Peterson

Photo by John Peterson

November 2011: The entire village was flooded Soon after, the community began plans to migrate to higher ground.

Est. Damage: $24M*

Photo by Josephine Daniels

Photo by Josephine Daniels

September 2022: For the first time, floodwaters seeped into homes, reaching as high as 18-inches.

Est. Damage: $XX*

“What we’re looking for are solutions that are designed for us here in the Arctic,” said Mayor Black as he maneuvered his SUV over dunes of fresh sand that blew into the village like snowdrift. 

“Right now, some of the relief that’s been offered to us is fine if you live in Florida," he said downshifting on the soggy beach. “But we’re not Florida.” 

Since mid-morning, the mayor had been waiting on the arrival of Sen. Murkowski where he planned to drive her around Golovin's muddy streets, showing her the homes that had slid from their foundations, and introducing her to villagers like Bobby Amarok whose house now needed new floor insulation. (The original layer had been contaminated by floodwaters that seeped in with spilled diesel fuel and sewage.) He also planned to ask the senator to help extend subsistence quotas for area hunters, too. More moose meat could help replace some of what the storm took, he reasoned.

As he waited, it felt like time was fleeting. Freeze-up was maybe five or six weeks away. The sense of urgency was metaphor for the ensuing climate crisis targeting his typhoon-torn community.

Mayor of Golovin Charlie Black talks with U.S. Coast Guard servicemen on Friday, September 23, 2022, during storm damage clean-up in the village. | Photo by Jenni Monet

Mayor of Golovin Charlie Black talks with U.S. Coast Guard servicemen on Friday, September 23, 2022, during storm damage clean-up in the village. | Photo by Jenni Monet

“We are actually starting to think more proactively when it comes to how we make our coastal communities more resilient in the face of climate change,” said Murkowski at the FEMA gathering in Nome. “But for communities like Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, or Golovin that are sitting on ground as flat as this table with no protection around them – is that the safest place for those people,” she asked rhetorically. “Even though their families have been there for generations?” 

Back in Amarok’s kitchen where the room’s entire linoleum floor had been stripped revealing nothing but plywood, he and his daughter Lisa recalled the memories they shared between one storm season to the next – a drifting boat docked at their doorstep, one year; a disappearing lighthouse a few years before that – they were vivid points in a timeline captured through the family window.  

“I know I need to find a safe place to stay up the hill,” said Amorak, acknowledging Golovin's vulnerability.  But the thought of relocating anywhere else blew his mind.  He wouldn’t even leave his couch when the typhoon began to rise around him.  But villagers, including his son, knew when to put his stubbornness to rest when they arrived in deep water to carry his aging body away in the bucket of a front-end loader.  

“Where else would I go?” he said, shrugging his shoulders with a laugh.  “This is home." ◼️

Because you've read this far...

Cut through the noise with quality journalism and thoughtful analysis when you sign-up for Indigenously, a free monthly newsletter loaded with facts designed to decolonize your newsfeed.

We promise we'll never sell or share your information.