3 weeks after fire, state still hasn’t provided disaster funds for Tuluksak water crisis

Peoplpe gather around a burning building in a snowy area
On Jan. 16, a fire in Tuluksak destroyed the village’s washeteria and water plant building, which was their only source of clean, running water. (Courtesy Kristy Napoka)

Three weeks after a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s only source of drinking water, legislators representing the Western Alaska village say they haven’t received a response from the office of Gov. Dunleavy about declaring a state-level disaster. The lack of a declaration is holding back up to $1 million in disaster relief funding for the village. 

In the meantime, the village has been living on donations of bottled water that have come from activists, a gold mining company, and even an Indigenous rapper from the pop-rap group the Black Eyed Peas. But noticeably absent have been supplies from the state government.

State Legislators who represent Tuluksak say they’re working on the issue. Sen. Lyman Hoffman said that he is looking at options to pay for the long-term response to the crisis. Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said that the House can’t do much right now since it is currently unorganized. She said the governor should declare a state disaster.

“The sphere of influence related to the circumstances in the village of Tuluksak and its water crisis is most influenced by the administration and the executive branch’s ability to move the disaster request forward within its own process,” said Zulkosky.

Zulkosky told KYUK that she has contacted Dunleavy’s office multiple times in recent weeks, asking him to declare a disaster and to send in the National Guard. When asked if the governor’s office had replied, Zulkosky said it hadn’t.

“I have not heard a response from the governor’s office on my inquiries related to National Guard support, whether they’ve pursued unspent CARES [Act] funding that have been provided to the state, or anything related to that issue and Tuluksak,” she said.

KYUK also contacted the governor’s office, which deferred to the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Spokesperson Jeremy Zidek said that although the division has not donated supplies, it can provide relief to Tuluksak without a disaster declaration.

Listen to an excerpt from and interview with Jeremy Zidek

“The requests that we had from Tuluksak were that they didn’t have access to potable water. So our primary concern was restoring that access, he said.

Meaning, rather than giving Tuluksak fresh drinking water, the division coordinated with private citizens and other agencies to make sure that water bottles could be flown or driven in.

Zidek said that part of the division’s job is to make sure that if the community can’t respond to the emergency, someone else does. That can be nonprofits or private companies, but not necessarily the state itself.

He said that a gubernatorial disaster declaration is more for a long term approach to recovery. The state government likely won’t need to respond in the long term in this case, since the tribe has already filed a grant request for a permanent water plant and washeteria with the federal Indian Health Service.

Zidek said that his division is writing a report on the water crisis to send to the governor’s Disaster Policy Cabinet, after which the cabinet could recommend that the governor declare a disaster. The governor could then release up to $1 million in relief funds without legislative approval. Zidek didn’t say when, or if, this would happen.

In an email, Rep. Zulkosky said, “If any larger community in Alaska was without reliable access to water during a global public health crisis, it is almost certain a disaster would be declared.” She also said that Alaskans who live in Tuluksak deserve just as much access to state emergency resources as Alaskans in other communities.

A list provided by the Legislative Finance Division shows where disaster relief funding has been provided over the last 10 years.

Examples where money from the Disaster Relief Fund has been used in the past 10 years, including for fires. (Legislative Finance Division)

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