Disasters Happen in Alaska Every 90 Days, Hear from the Team Mitigating Them First-Hand – Mike Dunleavy
In this age of earthquakes and pandemics, it is perhaps unsurprising that Bryan Fisher, Director of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and his team are in emergency mode. non-stop activation since 2018. But the scale of disasters in Alaska that Fisher and his crew are responding to is extraordinary. House-sized ballistic ice rolling on the banks of the Yukon River at Galena and the gigantic shaking of the 8.2 earthquake with a tsunami warning near Sand Point along the Aleutian Megathrust Fault , are part of.
On the FirstHand podcast, director Fisher shares insight into Alaska’s evolution, gleaned from its 30 years of disaster mitigation.
Click here to listen First hand episode 8. Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple.
“We used to think of disasters seasonally in this state, whether it’s floods in the spring, avalanches in the winter, threats of sea storms in the fall, there’s no really more season,” Fisher said. “Disasters happen regularly in the state and across the country at all times of the year, so we have really been non-stop at the State EOC (Emergency Operations Center), with our National Guard partners and, in particular , local communities, to respond to these weather events.
In Alaska, a declared disaster occurs every 90 days, Fisher said. Since the start of winter, Fisher’s disaster calendar looked like this:
- October 29, 2021, mega rainfall in the Girdwood area, a 500 or 1,000 year rainfall event
- January 2022, never before seen rain indoors in winter? Massive snowfall in Delta & Greely, Copper River, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Nenana and Denali Borough
- January 2022 hellish winds of over 90 mph in flip planes and Mat-Su borough semis knocking out power to some 20,000 residents in freezing weather
- January 2022, the city and borough of Yakutat and the southeast must dig the roof-crushing snowfall
- February 2022, fire destroys the Tununak Indigenous Village laundry, leaving the community without showers or laundry service
- February 2022, a levee breach for a sewage lagoon spills raw sewage onto the tundra in the town of Hooper Bay
For all but two of these declared disasters, the Alaska National Guard was activated to help clear snow from buildings to prevent collapse and meet transportation needs. But it’s not like in the movies. The Alaska National Guard is not called upon to enforce the law in tense situations, Fisher said. In the pandemic, the Guard played a supporting role.
“A lot of people think it’s the easy button. We need the National Guard, but the National Guard is limited to some degree by federal regulations… “If we needed to fly responders into a community or fly sandbags, things like that, we should look to the private sector first. If they are able to do so, so much the better. We pay them and work with them to make sure that happens. If they can’t, if the weather is too bad or the conditions are dark, then we have the option of using the Alaska National Guard aircraft to do it. But we cannot compete with the private sector. If the private sector can do that, it gets the first helping hand. »
Cyberattacks can be added to the list of declared disasters that Fisher responds to if House Bill 3 gets the votes. Fisher knows that computer viruses can wreak havoc on communities. “We are attacked millions of times a day with attempts to access our networks and systems. Imagine if an attack had an impact on our utilities, electricity and water, the impact it would have on our lives. And this threat goes everyday.
Alaska’s food security is now part of Fisher’s job to defend. In February, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy issued Administrative Order 331 to ensure a robust supply of food in the event of a supply chain disruption. The Fisher Division is part of the Alaska Food Security and Independence Task Force. “We’re at the end of the supply chain,” Fisher said. “If we lose the ability to receive ships here or trucks on the Al-Can, it will cause a food shortage problem.”
Fisher and his team are there to help people on their worst day. They also try to prevent the worst day from happening.
River Watch is a National Weather Service program that provides early warning and recognition of how rivers break, so when ballistic ice moves through communities like Eagle in 2009 and Galena in 2013, and flooding in Buckland in 2021, residents are ready.
TsunamiReady in Alaska is a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sets up resident and visitor alert systems for coastal communities in the event of an earthquake-generated surge reaching the inland.
When disaster strikes, Fisher runs the SEOC, State Emergency Operations Center, the one-stop-shop local communities can call when they need help. The SEOC is the nerve center to be able to respond to all requests and later to coordinate the recovery, he said. The past two years have been difficult, he said, as the coordination of resources with communities has been handled virtually. Early in the pandemic, Fisher said his staff had to adapt to handling a disaster from their kitchen table.
Fisher praises the resilience of Alaskans who are often prepared for recurring fires, windstorms, earthquakes, heavy snowfalls and even volcanic eruptions.
In the fall of 2018, some 13,000 Alaskans applied for individual state assistance, and some were surprised at what was covered. “It’s important for people to understand that government disaster assistance is not a substitute for insurance and is not intended to cure people, so if a house is damaged or destroyed we cannot replace it. The program is not there for that. Its purpose is to make a house (still standing) safe, secure and habitable again.
What can Alaskans do? Know the dangers of where you live, Fisher said. He said to gather financial documents now when it’s not a disaster, such as copies of birth, marriage and death certificates and property deeds. He adds that Alaskans need to be more resilient than people in the Lower 48. Food and water for three days is not enough. Alaskans need food and water for at least two weeks. And don’t forget your pet’s food, he says.
Fisher urges Alaskans not to be afraid of our inevitable, just prepared disasters.
FirstHand the podcast, episode 8, was recorded at the Alaska National Guard Readiness Center on Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. FirstHand is produced in Governor Mike Dunleavy’s office by host Patty Sullivan.