When the remnants of Typhoon Merbok were barreling toward western Alaska to unleash what turned out to be the region’s strongest storm in more than half a century, meteorologists knew what was coming. What they could not predict was the exact level and location of flooding – devastation that prompted a federal disaster declaration on Friday by President Joe Biden and a whirlwind Alaska tour over the weekend by Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell.
“The large-scale weather models nailed this storm, days in advance. The storm surge models were crap — not complete crap, but a lot of crap,” said Rick Thoman, a climate scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Chalk that up to huge gaps in the knowledge about nearshore areas along the 1,000-mile stretch of coastline holding communities that were inundated by floodwaters.
It’s among several long-term lessons that policy experts are already considering in the storm’s immediate aftermath, including infrastructure needs.
There are only four year-round water-level stations maintained in western and Arctic Alaska by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to the NOAA-affiliated Alaska Ocean Observing System, which aims to use ocean data to improve safety. Only two of those stations, located at Nome and Unalakleet, are found in the wide swath of western Alaska hit by the storm.
It is a glaring deficiency that has been highlighted by the Merbok disaster, Thoman said.
“Certainly, in my opinion, we need to improve our near shore, the community-scale monitoring in real time. And we have to have that tied into a national database. We need to know what those numbers mean,” he said.
AOOS, which is part of NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System, says neglect plays a role in those knowledge gaps. “Unfortunately, Alaska coasts have historically received less attention than the rest of the continental U.S. in terms of real-world observations, and as a result suffer from a higher degree of uncertainty in terms of understanding coastal water level, current and wind-wave simulation capacity,” AOOS says on its website.
NOAA has funded a project, led by the University of Notre Dame,aimed at filling in some of those gaps. NOAA is also playing catchup with its studies of the Alaska seafloor, a science known as bathymetry. Alaska bathymetry knowledge is notoriously sparse. As of early 2021, more than 70% of Alaska’s waters remained unmapped, according to NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. Shape and features of the ocean floor affect the way that water moves onto land, Thoman said.
The Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys is another agency trying to piece together information to make local-scale flood forecasts. Much baseline information needs to be gathered for the first time, a difficult task because Alaska’s coastline is so extensive, is changing so rapidly and is affected by “some of the highest rates of erosion in the world,” according to the division’s website.
Repairs and rebuilding efforts spotlight another long-term need: Infrastructure improvements that will be resilient to repeat occurrences of strong storms like Typhoon Merbok.
The flooding and winds ripped houses off foundations, destroyed sections of road, scattered boats and vehicles, wrecked subsistence fish camps and, in some places, exposed sections of permafrost that will now thaw and likely erode quickly.
In the Inupiat village of Golovin, home to about 180 people and one of the hardest-hit communities, the storm has added urgency to existing plans to relocate infrastructure and homes to higher ground, said Mayor Charlie Brown.
The power plant, bulk fuel tank farm, school and water and sewer system are all in vulnerable locations, including the end of a spit, Brown said.
“Another two to three storms with this magnitude, everything will be washed out there,” he said. Water and sewer is particularly worrisome. The community has a 1.2-million-gallon water tank directly in harm’s way, he said.
Aside from relocating structures and facilities uphill, there is a possibility of protecting structures “that are still livable” by elevating them, and by also erecting a rockwall to protect the coast, Brown said.
Even before the storm, relocation of houses and community infrastructure to higher ground was seen as a pressing need in Golovin and other communities. It and five other Alaska communities were awarded grants in March by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to help pay for that relocation work.
Rep. Mary Peltola, in a Sept. 19 media briefing, said there are plenty of signs that current infrastructure is too weak to withstand the powerful storms that are likely to become more common as the climate warms. She noted that the storm tossed around huge rocks that were arrayed to protect shorelines. “I’m not sure that we have been building things for storm surges that see 90-mile-an-hour winds,” she said.
That appears to have been the case in the Inupiat village of Shaktoolik. In that community of 210, where residents years ago opted against a relocation plan, estimated to cost $290 million, in favor of a beach-protection berm constructed with gravel and driftwood at an estimated cost of under $1 million. Typhoon Merbok obliterated that berm.
The Alaska disaster is tied directly to climate change, Thoman said. It formed over a region in the Pacific that lies well east of the usual birthplace of typhoons, he said. Those waters there have heated dramatically, he said. “We had this water that historically would not have supported tropical storm formation. Now it does,” he said. From this new origin site, Typhoon Merbok was able to travel a shorter distance and hold more of its power when it reached Alaska than previous storms, he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, speaking Saturday in an interview with Nome radio station KNOM, acknowledged the role of climate change and said there is a need to prepare for that:
“Is this kind of our new normal here? And if that’s the case, we’ve got to be thinking about the longer-term view of how we provide for the resilience of these communities,” she said, mentioning more seawalls and emergency evacuation routes as possibilities.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law last November – and authored in part by Murkowski — includes money that is specifically for Alaska village relocation and protection against flooding and erosion linked to climate change.
In the immediate term, FEMA and other agencies are racing to beat the arrival of the winter freeze expected in a few weeks and trying to figure out how to assist the people in the region who depend on harvests of wild foods.
Many residents of the storm-hit and largely Indigenous communities have lost boats, all-terrain vehicles, smokehouses and other items needed to conduct those traditional harvests. Some lost entire stockpiles of fish and other wild foods gathered over the summer and intended to last through the coming winter.
It’s not the normal category of losses that FEMA tallies in natural disasters occurring in places like hurricane-stricken Florida or the tornado-prone Midwest. For now, the Department of the Interior is releasing $2.6 million through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for immediate assistance to pay for replacements.
“As we continue to work with our Tribal partners to identify and address long-term needs, these initial funds will help purchase critical food, supplies and water for those impacted by the storms,” Bryan Newland, assistant Interior secretary for Indian affairs, said in a statement.
Peltola, at a news conference Friday in Gov. Dunleavy’s Anchorage office, said she wants FEMA officials to understand who that property is needed to conduct subsistence harvests.
“I know ‘cabin’ has a recreational sound to it, I think, if you’re not from Alaska. But Alaskans recognize that ‘cabin’ means place where you’re gathering food for your family and your extended family and your community,” she said.
The same goes for the snowmachines, all-terrain vehicles and boats that were damaged, destroyed or lost, she said. “These are not recreational vehicles. These are critical for being able to provide food security for your family,” she said.