Tribal communities in Alaska face food insecurity after Hurricane Merbuck

For dozens of tribal communities in western Alaska, the damage from Hurricane Merbuck — fueled by climate change — is deepening food insecurity.

The Big Picture: We are only a few weeks away from the Alaskan winter, and it usually takes years to recover from disasters.

  • Last weekend, the remnants of Merbok hit 1,300 miles along the western coast of Alaska with the strongest September storm ever recorded in the Bering Sea.
  • Floods caused by the storm knocked out power, wiping out subsistence stores, and destroying water and sewage systems, homes and roads – affecting food sources and livelihoods.

Multiple power outages Reported across affected communities have spoiled subsistence food collected throughout the year to last into winter.

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

News leadership: In Iñupiat communities such as Shaktoolik, a storm destroyed the city’s protective berm, which was built to keep rising seas at bay. This has left nearly 324 residents, 98% of whom are Alaskan Natives, vulnerable to the upcoming floods.

  • Onalaklet, which had a population of 768 at the last census and 58% of Alaskan Natives, was among several villages that suffered the destruction of their water supply systems, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
  • The town of Nome, which has a population of about 4,000, 57% of whom are Alaskan Natives, has experienced severe flooding, erosion, and blackouts.
  • Among the worst affected by the blackouts and floods was Golovin, a village of about 142 people, 92% of whom are Alaskan Natives.

Drama: Food insecurity was a problem in rural Alaska communities even before the storm.

  • Nearly one in nine Alaskans is food insecure, and 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 Alaskan Natives—an estimated 3.1 million people—are believed to be food insecure.
  • Climate change is contributing to the loss of traditional food sources for indigenous communities.
  • Rapidly rising temperatures are leading to declining salmon populations, declining seal hunting seasons and harmful algal blooms — all linked to increased food insecurity in the region, Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, told Axios. .

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

  • Take hunting, which is key to a subsistence lifestyle, or living on land – both culturally important to the Alaskan Native Nations and central to their sovereignty.
  • At this time of year in particular, hunting is important to rural communities who stock up on food for the winter. But with streets flooded, buildings and homes damaged and power outages, people won’t be fishing – they will focus on disaster recovery.
  • “Fishing in Lower 48 is a recreational activity. In western Alaska, this is how you feed your family,” Thoman said.

Last: Jeremy Zedek, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told Axios that about 50 communities have been affected, although the full extent of the damage remains unknown.

  • Zedek emphasized that the state had reports of damage to community food stores and individuals from the storm. Relief teams visit the worst-affected areas and “assess food and other needs”.

Nomi is a tribal member of the Eskimo community Darlene Trigg lost the living cottage her family built in the storm. “It was the primary place my family was able to live from,” Trig told Axios in a written statement.

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

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