NOME – A storm that battered western Alaska over the weekend has reorganized the Earth.
There was no loss of life, but Nome’s landscape changed physically for the foreseeable future, with raw materials greatly scattered, shoreline reconfigured, and beachside campgrounds and pools anchoring generations of subsistence either flattened or disappeared.
All around the Nome-Council Road, heading east out of town, cabins used for fishing, foraging and seasonal family life are in ruins.
“Some of them just disappeared,” said Bryant Hammond, incident commander at the Nome Emergency Operations Center.
Nome, a city of about 3,700 people that serves as a trade and logistics center for 15 small communities in the Bering Strait region, has held up relatively well, a city of about 3,700. By Monday, business owners were opening windows along Front Street and shoveling mud from gutters while heavy equipment rolled around the side streets and seawall. The facilities are good. Many car and truck owners are gradually discovering that their vehicles have been effectively assembled by partial submersion in salty and silt floodwaters.
But the worst damage was done outside the city, with so far countless subsistence cabins in ruins.
For those unfamiliar with western Alaska, the word “cabin” may conjure up a neatly tapered log cabin in the woods, or a euphemism for a stately weekend home overlooking Lake Nancy. These are not those. The fish camps that punctuate the estuaries and shores of the southern Seward Peninsula are like cozy huts, not electrified or hooked up to plumbing, backed by meat racks, smokehouses, saunas, chopping tables, lumber piles, and utilitarian bric-a-brac to take advantage of the seasonal land and sea offerings.
They are essential to the region’s economy: family-wide food production and processing plants, childcare and education centers in the summer, and a release valve for overcrowded homes and apartments in a housing-deficient region.
My daughter’s smoke is gone. Standing at the second-floor living room window, I watched the storm sink the small boat harbor in my sleep on Saturday, the outhouses are gone.
Gologergen said that although the main cabin at her daughter’s camp remained intact, the bedding and other items inside were wet, wrecked, and eventually expensive to replace. Although she slept for a decade, the 67-year-old spent most of her life on St. Lawrence Island, where the communities of Gambill and her hometown of Savunga were largely spared great destruction, but caches of fish and meat were stored or hung. From the shelves on the beach were either discarded or disappeared.
“Already a lot of people are out on the beaches in search of edible things,” Gologergen said. “And to see what’s left of everyone’s camps.”
“They work faster than the Internet,” she said with a laugh about the damage assessment and repair work. “The network of people in the villages. And they actually did it yesterday.”
Camps are built with less than accumulated over years and generations, and are rarely insured or registered with the formal banking system, which makes financing reconstruction or repair more difficult.
Gologergen said Concerns about the storm’s lasting impact on vegetation. Wisps of “baseball-sized” sea foam blanketed the street below her window. She fears the ocean salt will wither next summer’s berry crop along miles and miles of shore.
The Nome-Council Road itself is also ruined. For the first twenty miles or so it can be traversed, especially since the state Department of Transportation has graders and heavy equipment removing stones plucked from the seawall, anchoring drift, pushing driftwood to the sides, and leveling drifting sand.
But then, around Mile 24, there’s a massive new hole where the safe sound system feeding into the creek has penetrated the barrier islands that support the road.
“That lake became one with the ocean, where our camps are,” said Gulgurgin.
The camps on the far side of the new quarter-mile-wide wound were now cut, save for the planes.
“I don’t think if you have a canoe you can cross it,” Hammond said.
Families with former Safety Sound seasonal camps, along with a few dozen seniors who live most of the year around the council, will have to find new ways to get into town.
“We’ll have to build a new bridge, it seems,” Hammond said.
The storm was severe: high seas, high winds, strong waves, all of which lasted for more than a day. The massive seawall that helped mitigate the damage to the city was rearranged elsewhere along the coast. Boulders and boulders scattered everywhere. Strands of shore disappeared, eroded, as if erased or fell 6 feet lower than they should, swept away sand and splashed all over the tundra on Lee’s side of the road.
There will be major repairs and challenges ahead, not only in Nome but throughout the region, all the way to the estuary of the Coscoquim River hundreds of miles south. Even communities that do relatively well—and that have not lost entire homes or experienced major infrastructure failures—will face huge costs that cannot easily or quickly be accounted for in disaster: family campgrounds, familiar harvest areas, small boats and subsistence equipment, and rebuilding infrastructure for mitigation. from the devastating effects of weather.
“The system has been reorganized. It does that naturally in nature. But we humans, it kind of bothers us,” Hammond said.
In the rearrangement of the Earth, for some, there is opportunity. Along the cleaned beaches to the east of Nome are freshly scattered plumes of turbid red dirt, the kind known to be fertile fishing grounds for goldfish. While public officials cleared the way, volunteers picked up driftwood or tailings, remote figures showed off chopped cabins, and a few gold miners using mini-excavators attached to their pickup trucks hauled the freshly sloping shore in search of treasure.
This story was originally published by Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.