The Department of Homeland Security and emergency management, or DHSEM, set up assistance centers on St. Lawrence Island after Governor Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration almost two weeks ago.
Downstairs in the City office building where community bingo is normally played, people were waiting to fill out forms for the damage their houses sustained during the destructive Bering Sea winter storm that hit in the final days of 2016. One local elder, who had already completed her application, showed pointed out the home she’s lived in for over fifty years.
Barbara Kogassagoon’s house is a short ATV ride away from the airstrip and an even shorter ride from Savoonga’s City office building. Her house only stands out from the others because of its unconventional front door.
“My outside door, it came off. The nails came off, and my son was planning to put it back, but the yard cleaners threw it away, so I’m using a little tarp out there,” Kogassagoon said. “It’s getting worn out, so my living room gets so cold when it gets windy.”
Kogassagoon’s home was one of more than thirty buildings in Savoonga that were damaged by the New Year’s Eve storm. Seven of her windows were broken, the outside stairs shifted, and the wind almost caused the house to tip over.
Kogassagoon said it’s difficult for her to maintain the four-bedroom space that she shares with her nine grandchildren.
“I’m getting old, so it’s kind of hard for me. I wish I was young, I would get a business and pay for things.” Kogassagoon choked up as she said, “My husband and I used to pay everything; ever since he died, it’s kind of hard for me.”
The 90-year-old grandmother built this house with her husband, and she is hopeful that the State can provide the assistance she needs to keep her home in good condition and repair the damages.
John Ramsey with DHSEM is part of the eight-man team running assistance centers in Savoonga and Gambell. He says their goal is to determine what the State can provide for identified residents who were affected by the late 2016 storm.
“We’ll get their home address, all the pertinent information, what kind of damages did they have to their home, any losses we put down on that application. At the time we take that application, we have verifiers that come and do the inspections,” Ramsey explained, “and they will inspect the home and get an idea of what the cost will be. That’s part of making a decision on all of the damages that happened because of the storm and… (on what properties are) eligible for assistance.”
Savoonga’s mayor, Myron Kingeekuk, is busy helping his fellow community members fill out paperwork and schedule appointments for the verifiers to visit their homes. He approximated 20 people have already come in as of Friday, but he said they’re behind schedule.
Regardless of how many people have applied, Ramsey said the DHSEM team is scheduled to stay in Savoonga through the beginning of this week.
“We’re still going to be here until Tuesday, and also, we are putting information out that people can call in by phone. We encourage them to call our office and take that application, and we’ll have our verifiers do that. So, if they can’t make it in, they can call in,” Ramsey reiterated.
If the State is unable to meet Savoonga’s needs, then Ramsey says workers from Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD, could also provide assistance. Ramsey expects the State, and any other involved agency, will arrive in Savoonga to start home repairs in about a month.