JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – Commissioner for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, traveled to Western Alaska last week to meet with Tribal leaders and citizens in Bethel, Tuluksak and Chevak to discuss disaster assistance measures and processes in light of recent emergencies that have occurred in the region, and in preparation for the upcoming flood season.
Saxe and a small team of DMVA, Department of Environmental Conservation, and Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development personnel, met with community leaders in Tuluksak April 8 to discuss the disaster response effort after the village’s community washeteria was destroyed in a fire in January. They visited Tuluksak School and were shown the reverse osmosis system and the drinkable community water access point being used as a temporary solution to provide drinking water to the community until a portable water plant can be connected, and eventually, a new permanent system can be installed.
While there, Saxe presented Alaska Community Service Medals to Tuluksak Tribal Council secretary, treasurer and utilities manager, Kristy Napoka, and Tribal administrator, Elsie Allain, for their commitment and dedication to disaster response coordination in support of the community.
“It is obvious that you care about your community, and that care turns into action,” said Saxe. “We all appreciate your hard work.”
Napoka and Allain worked with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, DEC, and other agencies to coordinate planning and solutions for the community.
To assist small communities, particularly areas of Alaska that are not contained in any if its 19 organized boroughs, personnel at the state level must be innovative and flexible in order to collect information on emergency events for informed decisions. While in Tuluksak, the team worked with leaders to discuss emergency management responsibilities, and Napoka and Allain volunteered to be community emergency coordinators. They will receive emergency management training to assist in response efforts for any future disasters or emergencies in Tuluksak.
Saxe is sending an emergency management specialist from the DMVA’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to Tuluksak this week as a liaison to bridge communication and coordination efforts as work continues to resolve long-term water accessibility in the community, and to provide emergency management training to the new Tuluksak EOC representatives.
The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation established a water purification system in February that draws surface water from the Tuluksak River and treats the water. The system provides filtration and disinfection to ensure clean, drinkable water is available for everyone in the community. YKHC is also working on moving a temporary water treatment plant to Tuluksak that will draw water from the community’s previously drilled well heads. This intermediate solution will produce greater amounts of potable water for the community’s needs.
A multi-agency group continues to discuss long-term funding solutions. Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Housing and Urban Development, and State of Alaska funds may be utilized to address rebuilding efforts for Tuluksak’s water plant.
When Saxe was appointed commissioner in 2018, he identified three top priorities for the DMVA and Alaska National Guard, for which he is the adjutant general and commander. Rural and domestic operations was and still is a top priority. He met with Tribal, village, community and Native Corporation leaders in many communities until COVID-19 safety measures prevented travel. Saxe has visited Kodiak, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Galena and other communities to address disaster mitigation and response, opportunities for employment through the Alaska National Guard, education and training for teens through the Alaska Military Youth Academy, and continued benefits available to Alaskan veterans.
While in Tuluksak, Saxe also asked community members about their concerns for spring flooding and shared that the DMVA’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has already planned for this year’s flood season.
“We are watching the weather carefully and that is one of the reasons we are out here, is to talk about River Watch and what it means for this area of Alaska with COVID and the water situation, and potential issues during breakup,” said Saxe.
Upon returning to Bethel, Saxe spoke at a town hall in the National Guard Readiness Center to address disaster assistance, River Watch, and Alaska National Guard career opportunities.
Representatives from the Association of Village Council Presidents, Orutsararmiut Native Council, Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, Calista Corporation, Bethel Native Corporation, Bethel Search and Rescue, and the Civil Air Patrol participated in the discussion, which was limited in number and socially distanced for COVID-19 safety measures.
The team also met with local community leaders in Chevak on April 9 to address a recent fire that destroyed the old school building that closed in 2004.
Dennis Jones, Tuluksak city administrator, said the village had hoped to use the building as a community center in the future. He said they had applied for and were awaiting approval of a state grant that would fund cleanup of asbestos and other toxins as early as this summer.
DEC solid waste and emergency management personnel provided community members with information about the hazardous cleanup planning efforts, and listened to recommendations and feedback from several of those in attendance. They discussed alternate plans and answered questions about the movement and disposal of the building materials that remain at the site of the school fire.
During the meeting, community member John Atchak, asked Saxe to bring employers and National Guard recruiters for a career fair, and plans are underway for that opportunity this summer.
“We can make that happen,” said Saxe. “And I’d love to recruit more people from your community to join the Alaska National Guard, for training, employment, benefits, and an opportunity to serve in a unique way.”
The State of Alaska is always prepared to assist Alaskans with disaster and emergency response, risk mitigation and preparation. Emergency managers with DMVA’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management regularly traveled throughout Alaska to provide training on emergency request processes prior to COVID-19 conditions, and they are preparing to ramp back up to help Alaskan communities through official training programs. State personnel work directly with communities and boroughs to track progress, and provide guidance and additional assistance as needed, regardless of whether a disaster declaration has been requested.
“We must effectively communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with communities to ensure they are cared for when they experience disasters or emergencies,” said Saxe. “We provide rapid response and recovery during and after natural disasters.”
The series of meetings in the Bethel region are one part of an effort to work with communities to help Alaskans better understand the resources available to them, and how to request the resources in times of need.