Communities hit by disaster struggle to get answers from Dunleavy administration

Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

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It’s been three weeks since a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s only source of drinking water, the community is still waiting for help—any kind of help—from the state, according to a report by KYUK Radio that was published on Friday and republished by other outlets over the weekend.

The 300-person village, where about a third of residents have already tested positive for COVID-19, has received donations of bottled water from activists, a gold mining company and even from The Black Eye Peas’ rapper Taboo Nawasha, but the state has been notably missing. Despite outreach from the community’s legislators, the state has reportedly sent no supplies and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has not utilized his disaster declaration powers that could provide up to $1 million for the response without legislative approval.

A Jan. 25 update on the effort to provide the community with safe drinking water noted that funding is an issue and a planned replacement of the community’s ruined water purification system—which had lasted for more than four decades, twice the expected age of such a plant—is about three or four years away from being installed and usable.

The state doesn’t appear to be particularly interested, according to the latest report by KYUK, and a spokesman for the state’s disaster program pointed to the private response to provide supplies and the community’s grant application into the Indian Health Service for a permanent replacement (which is the solution that’s three to four years away) as a sufficient response. The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is apparently working on a report to send to the governor’s staff for consideration.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, told KYUK that the state’s response raises an issue of equity and that the Alaskans who live in Tuluksak deserve the same access to the state’s help that other communities do. “If any larger community in Alaska was without reliable access to water during a global public health crisis, it is almost certain a disaster would be declared.”

It’s also not the first time that the Dunleavy administration’s handling of disaster funds has become a problem.

A week ago, KHNS Radio reported that the community may no longer get $1.4 million in disaster relief funding intended for the community’s response to the December landslides once the administration found that they could spend the money elsewhere. The money, which came out of the state’s CARES Act distribution, had originally gone to Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital to provide psychiatric services in Haines but it more than covered the bill and the hospital returned the money to the state thinking that it would get rerouted to the community.

That hasn’t been the case and, again, getting an answer from the state seems be a challenge.

According to KHNS, Interim Haines Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton has been trying to reach out to the state to find out what was going to happen. The response was sent, instead, to former Haines legislator and special assistant to the governor Bill Thomas, who then forwarded it to Fullerton. “In the email,” according to the report by KHNS, “legislative liaison Suzanne Cunningham wrote that once Congress extended the deadline to spend CARES Act funds, the $1.4 million was no longer available for Haines.” Fullerton said the explanation was confusing and unsatisfying.

“I think the state said, ‘Wow, we have all this funny money that’s going to expire on December 30 what are we going to do with it? Oh, here’s a great idea! Let’s give it to Haines.’ Then I think once they realized it’s not going to expire, they’re clawing it back thinking that, ‘Wow, there are many other things that if we had a year we would rather spend it on than Haines.’”

Why it matters

 The biggest thing that stands out between these two stories is the administration’s refusal to speak directly and candidly with the affected communities.

Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation about why the lack of clean drinking water in the middle of a pandemic for Tuluksak doesn’t rise to the level of an emergency declaration or why it was appropriate to pull the rug out from Haines after landslides decimated the community, but instead they’ve had trouble even getting their calls returned.

Rep. Zulkosky is right to call it an issue of equity, especially after the governor’s budget cuts have largely focused reductions on programs and services that are relied on by rural and coastal communities. The administration’s response raises questions not only about how they determine what and who deserves emergency funds, but who even deserves a call back.

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