Last September, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok became one of the strongest storms ever known to hit Alaska, bringing 50-foot seas, devastating tidal surges, and hurricane-force gusts to the Bering Sea region. The giant storm impacted over 40 communities along 1,300 miles of mostly low-lying coastline. For many, recovery has been slow.

Along Merbok’s path, rural communities lost homes and infrastructure. In the Norton Sound region alone, tidal surges topped a protective storm berm in Shaktoolik and destroyed three miles of road in Golovin. In Nome, winds fanned a fire that destroyed the Bering Sea Saloon.

But in rural Alaska, damage to subsistence resources is just as important. Across the region, power outages threatened freezers full of winter food, while flood waters destroyed snowmachines, boats, and other equipment essential for hunting and fishing. Smokehouses, remote cabins, and fish camps—some that have been passed down through generations—were also damaged or destroyed.

Following Merbok, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration, and teams mobilized from the Alaska Army National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Alaska Community Foundation set up a Western Alaska Disaster Relief Fund that raised over $1.7 million. Dispersal of funds is informed by Alaska Native organizations such as the nonprofit Kawerak, Inc. But since Merbok arrived so close to winter, some repairs had to wait until this past summer, when regular barge service resumed.

Climate scientists and many Bering Sea residents know that Merbok carried signs of a changing climate. Warmer-than-usual ocean waters both strengthened the storm as it formed east of Japan and sustained it as it drifted north into the Bering. And the coastal erosion it caused adds to annual erosion occurring as warmer oceans fuel stronger storms and coastlines lose the protection of sea ice.


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