Sep 23, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Alaskan tribal communities confront food insecurity after storm

Photo illustration of coastal Alaska Native fishermen and caribou hunters.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Andrew Burton, Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For dozens of tribal communities in western Alaska, damage from Typhoon Merbok — fueled by climate change — deepens food insecurity.

The big picture: Alaska’s winter is just weeks away, and disaster recovery typically takes years.

  • Last weekend, the remnants of Merbok lashed 1,300 miles along the western coast of Alaska with the strongest September storm ever recorded in the Bering Sea.
  • Floods from the storm caused power outages, which wiped out subsistence stores, while damaging water and sewage systems, homes and roads — affecting sources of food and livelihood.

Multiple power outages that have been reported across the affected communities have resulted in the spoilage of the subsistence food gathered throughout the year to last through winter.

  • Without these stores to rely on, food insecurity becomes a looming concern for many in western Alaska's remote towns and villages.

Driving the news: In Iñupiat communities like Shaktoolik, the storm destroyed the town’s protective berm, built to keep the rising seas out. That left the roughly 324 residents, 98% of whom are Alaska Native, vulnerable to floods to come.

  • Unalakleet, which had a population of 768 as of the last census and is 58% Alaska Native, was among one of several villages that suffered damaged water supply systems, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
  • Nome, a town of nearly 4,000 residents, 57% of whom are Alaska Native, was hit by severe flooding, erosion and power outages.
  • Among the hardest hit with power outages and flooding was Golovin, a village of roughly 142 people, 92% of whom are Alaska Native.

The backstory: Food insecurity was a problem in Alaska’s rural communities even before the storm.

  • Roughly one in nine Alaskans are food insecure, and the more rural areas have the highest rates of insecurity, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.
  • A 2022 study published in the journal Advances of Nutrition found that 45.7% of Native Americans and Alaska Natives — an estimated 3.1 million people — are thought to be food insecure.
  • And climate change is contributing to the loss of traditional food sources for Indigenous communities.
  • Rapidly warming temperatures are driving declines in salmon populations, shrinking seal-hunting seasons and causing harmful algal blooms — all of which is linked to rising food insecurity in the region, Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told Axios.

How it works: Rebuilding after a storm disrupts traditional food harvesting that is central to subsistence economy.

  • Take hunting, which is key to a subsistence lifestyle, or living off the land — both culturally significant to Alaska’s Indigenous nations and central to their sovereignty.
  • At this time of year especially, hunting is important to rural communities that are stocking up food for the winter. But with flooded streets, damaged buildings and homes, and power outages, people aren't going to be hunting — they're going to be focused on disaster recovery.
  • “Hunting in the Lower 48 is a recreational activity. In western Alaska, it's how you feed your family,” Thoman said.

The latest: Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told Axios that around 50 communities were affected, although the full extent of the damage is still unknown.

  • Zidek confirmed that the state has reports of damage to community and individual food stores from the storm. Relief teams are visiting the most hard-hit areas and “assessing food and other needs.”

Nome Eskimo Community tribal member Darlene Trigg lost her subsistence cabin, which was built by her family, in the storm. “It was the primary place that my family was able to subsist from,” Trigg told Axios in a written statement.

  • “My dad and mom made sure we all had subsistence foods and it all happened in that building. It's a part of the foundation of who I am. It's built into my identity."
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