Two-and-a-half months after severe flooding ruined homes and vital infrastructure, Stebbins is organizing to put recovery funds towards fixing long-standing problems exacerbated by the storm damage. President Obama declared November’s storms in Western Alaska a natural disaster last month, unlocking federal funds to help the community.
Most homes in Stebbins don’t have sewer or water. The provisional remedy—a honey-bucket hauling system—is a series of chest-high black containers along the main road that a truck periodically empties en route to the sewage lagoon. And it created a serious health hazard when flood waters spilled several across a marshy plane just behind a row of homes, which has since frozen over.
Residents and officials were worried what would happen to the contamination when the ground thawed in the spring. Sitting in her narrow office with files spread across her desk, city administrator Nora Tomm said signs of contamination started appearing even earlier.
“After the storm we had close to 10 dogs that were reported, that they died from being sick and they had signs of e-coli,” Tomm said.
Advised by officials that the flood waters could bring contamination, residents took precautions and threw out household goods and stores of food.
Sitting in the main concourse of the Stebbins’ school, Anna Nashoanak with the Stebbins IRA explained that in a cash strapped community with so little employment the loss of traditional food caches was a significant loss for many in the community. This week NSEDC sent 3,000 pounds of halibut and salmon in response to a request from the IRA for help with community-wide losses of fish and meat in the storm.
Tommy Kirk, head of the IRA in Stebbins, had put posters on bulletin boards in Stebbins’ native store, the washeteria, and post office, and said by Thursday almost all the fish had been distributed.
Morris Nashoanak is mayor of Stebbins and says that the top priority working with state and federal funders is the town’s water system.
“Currently, our water and sewer has been on for many, many years,” Nashoanak said. “The flood from, recent flooding has put us in the situation where the state and the federal are looking to try and speed the process of getting the water and sewer for Stebbins.”
Though water and sewer have been development priorities in Stebbins for decades, local officials are now approaching it as an essential disaster mitigation measure, just like their calls for a protective seawall.
A lot of the vital infrastructure in Stebbins is not just outdated—it’s right in the path of ocean-flooding that’s only getting worse as storms intensify, freeze ups latten, and the beachfront erodes.
The school’s large cylindrical gas-tanks are just on the other side of a thin, improvised dirt road from the water. There’s still a knee-high, rust-colored water-mark from November’s flooding on them. Nearby is a thin yellow spigot juts out of the earth towards the sea-ice—the hook-up for gas deliveries, and it’s surrounded by driftwood and crumpled boat left over from the storm months ago.
The development projects Stebbins needs are not forward-looking proactive measures—they’re basic protective measures that community doesn’t have the resources to put in place on its own.
Mayor Nashoanak says that rather than relying on consultants and outside engineer firms for management of the projects—as they did in the past—the city is reorganizing to lobby and labor on its own behalf.
“And I think, with our group of people have lived through years of enduring storms, and the needs of the community I think with our group of people that have knowledge of trying to obtain some funding sources would be more of a mark to the community because the community can be able to stand up on their own and lobby for themselves,” Nashoanak said.
The Department of Homeland Security has helped residents since the storms catalogue property damage, and should be dispersing funds in the next few months. But the leadership in Stebbins is working on solidifying priorities to capitalize on FEMA money that could make a long-term difference for the community’s safety.
The hope is to present a list of needs to representatives in Juneau during this current legislative session in order to spur action in time for the clean-up efforts set to resume in the spring.