Alaska’s disaster law is vague. And it can leave communities like Tuluksak scrambling for help.

On Jan. 16, a fire in Tuluksak destroyed the village’s washateria and water plant building, which was their only source of clean, running water. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Napoka)

Alaska governors have responded to disasters very differently. The legal guidelines for an emergency declaration are open to interpretation and give governors a lot of discretion, which can leave local governments and tribes scrambling for help.

When a fire destroyed the Tuluksak water plant and washateria in January, the village lost its only source of drinking water. After three days, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation brought several cases of bottled water to the village by snowmachine. The clinic then rationed them out to Elders and babies.

More water had been donated but couldn’t make it to the village as the ice on the river was too thin for heavy vehicles. The airport runway was snowed in because the man who usually plowed it was in the intensive care unit with COVID-19 and later died. At the time of the fire, a third of the village had tested positive for the virus.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that Tuluksak told the state that they didn’t have access to potable water.

At the end of the first week, the airport runway was finally plowed and more drinking water was able to be shipped in. At that time, the entire supply of drinking water in Tuluksak amounted to less than two glasses of water per person per day.

Midway through the second week, the state issued a press release that said residents had “a number of options for access to water.” The options at the time were donations, buying water at the village store, or packing and boiling water from a frozen river located 2 miles from the village. The state later said that there had been no need for it to deliver water or supplies to Tuluksak because the community had enough.

“We definitely had not enough water,” said Tuluksak resident Kyle Peter.

Peter said that the village’s need for water wasn’t met during the two weeks following the fire. He bought bottled water from the store, which he described as expensive. His partner is pregnant and he didn’t want her drinking the river water.

“I don’t want her to touch any of the river waters. I just want her and my baby to be safe,” Peter said.

But for himself, Peter made do with the river water even though he said that it’s contaminated.

Two glasses of water per person per day does not meet CDC guidelines, which say that people should drink eight glasses a day. And that doesn’t account for water needed for cooking, cleaning, bathing, and washing hands, especially the amount of hand washing recommended during a pandemic.

Representatives from the state said that they were in contact with Tuluksak from the day the fire occurred. The state claims that they were continuously checking in on the community’s water supply and on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation’s efforts to restore water access.

It was more than a month after the fire when the state chartered a plane to send privately donated bottled water to Tuluksak. The state said that using the National Guard to deliver water or supplies would have been against federal law when other organizations were able to meet the community’s need, or when other planes were cheaper to charter. In the meantime, local residents like Peter were left to pick their way through the thick river ice for water and haul it 2 miles home.

“You have to go on your knees, or sometimes your belly, to get to the bottom of the hole,” Peter explained.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for Tuluksak 3 1/2 weeks after the fire.

Paul Nelson, deputy director for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, defended the governor’s timeline.

“To declare disaster immediately when an event happens is usually only reserved for when the community is utterly overwhelmed and there is an imminent or immediate life threat,” Nelson said in a press conference.

Samantha Montano, a professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and author of the forthcoming book “Disasterology,” said that because the disaster declaration is in the hands of one person, the governor, communities have to appeal to him.

“There really isn’t much that a community can do to necessarily speed that process along outside of garnering public support, and rallying media around their cause, and putting that political pressure on a governor to make those kinds of declarations,” Montano said.

In the case of Tuluksak, Dunleavy waited almost a month to issue a disaster declaration, and more than five weeks to send a representative to the site. Previous administrations have responded faster. Under Dunleavy’s predecessor, former Gov. Bill Walker, a similar washateria and water plant fire occurred in the Interior village of Alatna. The Walker administration sent a representative to the village seven days later and issued a disaster declaration 10 days after the fire.

At the time, Walker didn’t put the funds towards sending the community water. Instead, the funds went to fixing the water plant. Instead of providing immediate relief, he focused on long-term recovery. Dunleavy did the same with Tuluksak, which is common in state disaster response. But there’s nothing in the law specifying that disaster funds can’t go towards immediate relief. According to state statute, a disaster declaration is a governor-issued document that immediately frees up to $1 million in state funds and relief efforts without requiring legislative approval.

There’s no law saying when a disaster declaration needs to be signed. In the past decade, disasters have been declared the same day of the event or months later. The disaster was declared on the same day in the case of the 2013 spring flooding that affected some communities on the Yukon and Copper rivers, and almost 100 days later in the case of a 2011 fire that burned key buildings in the Interior community of Birch Creek.

On average, all of Alaska’s governors over the past decade have issued a disaster declaration within 29 days of a crisis occurring. Dunleavy, with an average of 45 days for disaster response, is pulling that overall average up. His predecessors, former governors Walker and Sean Parnell, responded in 25 days on average.

And compared to Walker, Dunleavy’s declarations have been about half as frequent. In his first two years in office, Walker declared 14 disasters. In Dunleavy’s first two years, he declared seven. And other events have gone undeclared by the governor as disasters, like a water crisis following a power outage in the Northwest Arctic village of Selawik this year.

Dunleavy has issued fewer declarations than his predecessors, but the numbers reported in this article don’t reflect his disaster declaration for the coronavirus pandemic, initially issued in March 2020, which is the only public health disaster declared in Alaska in the past decade.

Dunleavy’s office referred a request for comment on this story to Zidek, who said that Walker declared an unusually high number of disasters in one year.

“Gov. Dunleavy has not has as many disaster events occur during his term, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, Gov. Dunleavy has experienced two of the largest disaster events our state has seen in many years,” Zidek said.

First was the 2018 Cook Inlet Earthquake, which struck a day before he took office, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, for which his disaster declaration expired earlier this year.

Forty-five days after the fire destroyed Tuluksak’s water plant, YKHC installed a temporary water filtration system in the school that gave the community stable access to drinking water. During the 45 days prior, the community lived on river water and donations of bottled water.

A lack of quick aid particularly impacts communities in rural Alaska, where supplies are harder to ship in and cost more. One cargo airline quoted more than $30,000 to ship two weeks worth of drinking water from Anchorage to Tuluksak, and the cost of this kind of aid can be too expensive for many rural communities.

“This is why a lot of people, myself included, advocate for policy change when we’re talking about what we need to do differently to meet communities’ needs,” said Montano, who also said that the law would need to be clarified.

“Yeah, emergency management seems to be a policy area that nobody really pays that much attention to until there is a disaster. And then the limitations and the inadequacies of our approach become really visible,” she said.

New policy could help at a time when natural disasters are expected to increase due to climate change. Neither Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky nor Sen. Lyman Hoffman responded to requests for comment for this story.

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