My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

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My World's on Fire
The space between
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #111 • View online
Welcome to My World’s on Fire, a newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you’re seeing this newsletter for the first time, let’s make this a regular thing—subscribe to receive disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox on Thursday evenings. 

A note start today—September has been an incredibly active month for extreme weather, and it’s a heavy time for many of the millions of people who have been impacted by hurricanes, heat, flooding, or fires. As always, I defer to local outlets and journalists on-the-ground to bring you breaking news updates, and I recommend exercising caution while treating any social media updates as fact unless you’re able to independently verify them through at least one other channel.
Also, if you’re considering making any charitable donations, I suggest checking out this post from Dr. Samantha Montano about how to contribute in a way that is helpful rather than potentially harmful. 
Now, for today’s edition, I’m going to focus on one of the communities impacted by one of this month’s unprecedented storms: Typhoon Merbok. 
During the weekend of September 17th, remnants of this powerful storm swept across Alaska’s west coast, drenching the communities that call the remote region home. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explained:
“The storm was unusual due to being early in the season and its formation far east of Japan, where historically sea surface temperatures are too cool for many typhoons to form this time of year.
Over 1,000 miles of Alaska coastal areas are suffering flood damages which will impact local, predominantly Indigenous, communities through the upcoming winter season.”
To help you visualize that, 1,000 miles is “a distance longer than the entire length of the California coastline,” per The Guardian.
The good news is that no deaths have been officially reported in Alaska from the storm. However, there is a laundry list of extensive damage, including homes lifted from their foundations, roofs ripped off by winds that reached 90 miles per hour at times, and power outages. There were reports of damaged fuel tanks; reports of sunken roads. 
The storm’s timing also presented some unique challenges, striking during hunting and fishing season and just weeks before cold weather sets in. In a press conference, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy stressed that aid efforts need to happen quickly, before these already remote communities—many of which can only be accessed by plane—are further isolated by wintry conditions.
Approximately 21,000 people call the impacted region home, including Stanley Tom. He’s the former Tribal Administrator of the coastal Yup'ik village of Newtok. I virtually met Tom this summer when I moderated a panel for the Natural Hazard Center’s annual workshop. The theme was “Justice-Driven Housing Recovery,” and it brought together a number of expert and resident voices from across the US to speak to the challenges of housing in disaster-threatened areas.
During the session, Tom spoke of his experience living in an Indigenous community on the forefront of climate change relocation. For decades, Newtok’s residents have known they will ultimately need to relocate due to the impacts of climate change. The ground underneath them is thawing; their coastline is eroding.
(Speaking of housing justice, it’s worth mentioning that the Yup'ik people were semi-nomadic until they settled in Newtok in the mid-20th century to comply with government regulations.) 
In the book At Home on an Unruly Planet, Madeline Ostrander traces back the recognition of Newtok’s precarious position to 1984, when engineering consultants reported that it would likely be more cost-effective to relocate residents than to implement mitigation measures for the community. A loose plan to do just that was formed in the years that followed, which ultimately called for moving the nearly 400 residents about nine miles away to an area called Mertarvik.
But in the almost 40 years since engineers first made that observation, the move has yet to be completed. Tom is among dozens of residents that still remain in a Newtok that is rapidly being lost to encroaching water. In 2019, as a third of the village residents finally made the first large-scale move, NPR offered this explanation of why it had taken so long:
“Part of the reason is that the federal government has no comprehensive policy — or funding — to relocate communities bearing the brunt of climate change.
The cost of moving Newtok has been estimated at over $100 million. Getting even part of that has meant courting dozens of agencies for a house here, a stretch of road there. And managing the grants and the paperwork has not always been easy.
‘We lost by the millions,’ says former Tribal Administrator Stanley Tom.
Tom says millions of dollars in grants were mismanaged and lost in the early days of the relocation process. He blames it on disagreements within the village’s leadership. That led to a power struggle in which the Newtok Village Council eventually wrested control of the relocation effort from the Newtok Traditional Council. During that time of instability, funding stalled for years.”
In a 2020 Sierra Magazine article, Ostrander further details the complications, including how the pandemic factored into the process. For more on what life has been like in Newtok in recent years, you can also watch the documentary Patagonia released earlier this year. 
When I saw Newtok ranked among the areas hardest hit by this month’s storm, I reached out to Tom to see how he was doing. On the phone, he described his experience getting stuck in his house due to the roads around him “sinking” and the boardwalk outside his house being picked up by water. He said his 10,000 gallon double-wall tank was also carried away in the flooding.
It was a lot of water, he added, an unexpected amount even for an area well-versed in flooding.
“It’s really scary,” he told me. “I mean, we are remote in the village surrounded by lakes and rivers and [have] no place to go.”
Other Newtok residents shared with local journalists how they sheltered in the local school and observed homes flooding and boats sinking or floating away. The storm also further eroded the riverbank, again reminding residents of the ticking clock they are facing to relocate. 
In the days that followed my conversation with Tom, Governor Dunleavy traveled to Newtok to survey the damage and the Alaska National Guard was deployed to assist with the cleanup, which included a fuel spill.
Alaska National Guard photo of cleanup in Newtok by 1st Lt. Balinda O'Neal
Alaska National Guard photo of cleanup in Newtok by 1st Lt. Balinda O'Neal
But the very fact that Newtok is in limbo—a town that exists for an indeterminate amount of time—influences their recovery process, Tom says. For an example, he described electronic transformers that were damaged during the storm, causing power outages. The models they have in Newtok are obsolete, he explained, but there’s no push to replace them due to the impending move.
Of course, the question of when that will happen for residents like Tom still remains. And so does the question of how much longer they can wait, as they continue living with the effects of climate change they’ve long recognized were coming; the effects many believed would happen long after they were gone.
Read more:
A quick note about those other emails
This week I’ve been sending you a few extra emails to share what your financial support means to me and where your money goes. 
It’s the first time I’ve ever run a dedicated campaign like this, and I’ll be honest—fundraising is something that feels pretty uncomfortable for me. So, I’m incredibly grateful to those of you who are taking the time to read these emails, make a contribution, or spread the word about My World’s on Fire. This newsletter is an entirely reader-supported effort, so each of those actions are crucial to keeping it coming.
If you’re so inclined to donate, here’s how to help. And if you contribute today, you’ll get tomorrow’s bonus member email, which will share more insights from the panel I moderated with Stanley Tom.
As always...
thank you for subscribing to My World’s on Fire.
It’s been a week, so let’s cut right to it—here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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