There is a misperception that Alaska doesn't need support, that there's not a huge population, and that there are no disasters.
After Lesli Remaly flew through an Alaskan snowstorm for three hours in a four-seater plane, dipping from 11,000 to 3,500 feet, finally the bush pilot turned to her and calmly said, "Well, we're close enough now we could coast in if we lose power."
It was then Remaly realized that disaster response in Alaska is, in more ways than one, a matter of navigation.
It means being able to reach Alaska's many remote communities – where supplies are brought in via small plane or dogsled. But it also means being able to comfortably navigate – on a personal level – among more than 277 tribal groups in the state. It means offering disaster preparation and response training that can work in Anchorage – a densely populated city of 250,000 that's surrounded by water – and areas so rural they get cut off at the first sign of high water.
Remaly, who hails from the warmer climate of Miami, is a Church World Service (CWS) Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison. She began her work in May 2003 with a trip sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA's goal was to strengthen the state's ability to help people make a long-term recovery from disasters.
Her most recent September trip to Alaska was funded by CWS.
The pilot who flew Remaly was Jim Kincaid, president of the Alaska Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
Kincaid, who also represents Adventist Community Services, has been flying in Alaska for 27 years. Kincaid is modest about his piloting skills but will admit: "Well, yes, I've flown in lots of inclement weather."
In the past, Kincaid has been asked by FEMA to fly emergency supplies to Alaskan disaster sites. In one remote area, he remembered, flooding had cut off access from both the railroad and the road. "The only way to provide support was by aircraft," he said.
The Cesna 185 Skywagon he now owns has a glide ratio of two miles for every 1,000 feet of altitude. "It's capable of landing on a short strip," explained Kincaid. "And I keep certified for instrument flight."
A seasoned disaster responder himself, Kincaid said Lesli Remaly might not be used to flying in Alaska – but she's an expert in disaster response and in interpersonal relations that have made a profound impact among responders in the state.
"We've had a vacuum of readiness," he said. "And now we're building a level of response that's as close to the community as possible."
With guidance from Remaly and Kincaid, two new long-term recovery groups have been created: the Interfaith/Interagency Disaster Relief Organization based in Anchorage, and the ROCK – or Relief Offered by Congregations of the Kenai – based on the Kenai Peninsula.
Other areas in the state are also considering establishing long-term response committees.
Remaly offered training to voluntary groups that covered topics such as technological disasters, mitigation, how response differs between declared and undeclared disasters, how to train volunteers and handle unaffiliated volunteers, and how to respond in a state with a uniquely diverse population.
Last year Alaska had four federally declared and two state declared disasters.
"FEMA invited CWS to build the capacity within the faith community to do long-term response," explained Remaly.
"There is a misperception that Alaska doesn't need support, that there's not a huge population, and that there are no disasters."
But disasters in fact have a huge impact, especially on people who fish for their livelihood. "If the salmon don't run, people don't eat," she said.
Alaska is vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, wildfires, volcanic activity, high winds, avalanches, and the list goes on. And human-caused disaster can't be overlooked – the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster devastated parts of Alaska in 1989.
Last March a severe winter storm hit Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which were declared federal disaster areas. High winds and freezing temperatures caused widespread damage and hardship.
Then, in April, flooding in Salcha area near Fairbanks impacted more than 100 residents when floodwater inundated an area two miles wide by 8.5 miles long.
Last month, residents in Seward experience heavy rain and flooding.
The Kenai Peninsula is especially vulnerable to flooding. The State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is encouraging residents there to monitor their wells for standing water near the well casing.
If residents find standing water, they should boil their tap water for at least five minutes before drinking or obtain water from another trusted or approved source. Residents should then chlorinate their wells after flooding subsides.
National Weather Service forecasters are predicting that Alaska will receive more snow than last year, but are once again predicting warmer-than-normal temperatures.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough, with the help of a $20,000 state grant, is planning to produce an All-Hazard Mitigation Plan meant to reduce community vulnerability to disasters.
The money will come from the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs' Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, which set aside funds for pre-disaster planning. The borough's Office of Emergency Management applied for the grant and will use the money to draft a local all-hazard plan.
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