The typhoon that hit more than 1,000 miles of Alaska coastline in late September didn’t just damage buildings but disrupted generational ways of living for years to come.
“A majority of our fish camps are toast,” said Bertha Koweluk, pastor of Nome Community United Methodist Church.
That includes the fish camp that has been in Koweluk’s family for at least four generations, if not more, as proud Iñupiaq people. Her family, and plenty of others, lost all of their meat for the year when the storms and flooding knocked out their cabin, fish racks and even a cellar for the Koweluks, which contained four buckets of seal (black) meat.
“It’s a great loss,” she said. “That’s where our boys and daughters learned how to put stuff away. It’s where my husband went to center his heart and get time away. There are so many things that go with our camps.”
Rev. Daniel Wilcox, pastor at Wasilla Christ First UMC and Palmer Fellowship, serves as the Alaska Conference of The UMC Disaster Response Coordinator. He is also temporarily helping coordinate activities of the Alaska chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD). The logistics of coordinating disaster response in remote places of Alaska is quite challenging.
“Currently, the greatest identified need is doing basic emergency repairs on 105 homes in a number of villages to allow families to stay there for the winter,” Wilcox said. “Two of those villages, Hooper Bay and Chevak, represent nearly one-third of those homes.”
There are 22 villages in an area covering 1,000 miles of coastline that sustained damage, the majority of which was from both wind and sustained storm surge. There is no estimate yet on the number of fish camps lost. In addition to floods, the storms left behind salt deposits, which gets absorbed into the ground and kills crops such as berries that both humans and animals subsist on. Wilcox said there is no way of knowing how many years it will take those crops to recover.
Wilcox is working with Pacific Northwest Conference Disaster Response Coordinators to bring in two highly trained members of their Early Response Team (ERT) to begin doing damage assessments and help identify tools and supplies that will be needed. He is also hosting an ERT training at Anchor Park UMC in Anchorage on October 15.
The other complicating factor in the response is the remoteness of these communities and the changing weather, Wilcox said. Some villages may only be 10 miles apart, by map, but it takes either a boat or plane to get into these villages.
Supplies often must be shipped in by boat or plane and those shipments typically slow down or stop in mid-October.
“We then hope to schedule teams to do these repairs before the end of October or early November,” Wilcox said. “We’ve been coordinating with the state and FEMA to deal with logistics.”
Nome experienced some damage, but work is underway right now to fix roads, rock walls and the bridge that goes out to the fish camps, Koweluk said. It is typical for Nome to experience a storm once a year, but she said it has never been quite this damaging.
No logistics can fix the significant loss of meat for the local fish camps. Koweluk said she and her husband both have jobs, so they can afford to go to the grocery store this season to buy their meat. Still, they worked hard and spent many hours processing their fish and seal meat.
“Not having our four buckets of black meat is so devastating to me,” she said.
In several villages, there are subsistence fishers and hunters – meaning they live off the land – eating the fish they catch and the local berries and wildlife they harvest each year. It is not as easy as “just rebuilding,” Koweluk said, as families must go through an application process to acquire the land where they set up camp.
It isn’t just about feeding their bellies. For the Iñupiaq, food is a connection to ancestors.
“It feeds every part of our being,” she said.
The loss cuts deeper.
Koweluk cannot recall many stories of her family’s joy and peace that isn’t intertwined with their fish camp. At least four generations of her family have called it their gathering space and she has cherished photos of her husband’s mother, her husband’s aunt, her children and now her children’s children fishing, playing in their boat, processing fish with their grandmother or just laying on the ground in blankets watching the sun set to the west.
“It’s where you were taught to be a man in our way of being. It’s where we were taught to live off the land. You picture your grandkids and great grandkids playing there,” she said. “We’ve had so much loss as a people, we don’t know how to react.”
It’s where their stories have been told. It’s where their stories belong.
“It’s a part of your soul,” Koweluk said. “It’s more than a home. It’s way more than a home.”