In this age of earthquakes and pandemic it may be no surprise that Bryan Fisher, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and his team have been in non-stop activation mode since 2018. But the Alaska scale of disasters that Fisher and his crew respond to is extraordinary. Ballistic ice, the size of a house, rolling out of the Yukon riverbanks at Galena and the mammoth shaking of the 8.2 earthquake with a tsunami warning near Sand Point along the Aleutian megathrust fault, are among them.
On FirstHand the podcast, Director Fisher shares insight on how Alaska is changing, gleaned through his 30 years of mitigating disasters.
“We used to think of disasters kind of as seasonally in this state, whether it was flooding in the spring, avalanches in the winter, the threat of sea storms in the fall, really there is no season anymore,” said Fisher. “Disasters happen regularly in the state and across the nation any time of year, so we’ve really been nonstop at the State EOC (Emergency Operations Center), with our partners at the National Guard and, in particular, local communities, in responding to these weather events.”
In Alaska, a declared disaster occurs every 90 days, Fisher said. Since winter began, Fisher’s calendar of disaster looked like this:
- Oct. 29, 2021, mega rainfall to the Girdwood area, a 500- or 1,000-year-rain event
- Jan. 2022, unheard of rain in the Interior in winter? Massive snowfall in Delta & Greely, Copper River, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Nenana, and the Denali Borough
- Jan. 2022, 90 mph+ hell winds in the Mat-Su Borough flip planes and tip semis, knocking power out to some 20,000 residents during frigid temperatures
- Jan. 2022, City and Borough of Yakutat and Southeast have to dig out of roof-crushing snowfall
- Feb. 2022, a fire destroys the washeteria in the Native village of Tununak, leaving the community without showers and laundry service
- Feb. 2022, a dike failure for a sewage lagoon spills raw sewage across the tundra in the City of Hooper Bay
To all but two of those declared disasters, the Alaska National Guard was activated to help clear snow from buildings to prevent collapse and to help with transportation needs. It’s not like in the movies, however. The Alaska National Guard isn’t called out to be law enforcement in tense situations, Fisher said. In the pandemic, the Guard played a supportive role.
“A lot of folks think it’s the easy button. We need the National Guard, but the National Guard is constrained to some degree with federal regulations … “If we needed to fly responders out to a community or fly sandbags, things like that, we’d have to turn to the private sector first. If they are able to do it, then great. We pay them and work with them to make sure it happens. If they can’t, if weather is too bad, or night conditions, then we have the opportunity to use the Alaska National Guard aircraft to do it. But we can’t compete with the private sector. If the private sector can do it, they get the first jab at it.”
Cyberattacks may be added to the list of declared disasters that Fisher responds to if House Bill 3 gets the votes. Fisher knows that computer viruses can cause calamity to communities. “We’re attacked millions of times a day with attempts to get into our networks and systems. Imagine if an attack impacted our utilities, electric and water, the impact it would have on our lives. And that threat is going every single day.”
Food security for Alaska is now part of Fisher’s job to defend. In February, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy issued Administrative Order 331 to ensure a robust supply of food is available in case of supply chain interruptions. Fisher’s division is part of the Alaska Food Security and Independence Task Force. “We are at the end of the supply chain,” Fisher said. “If we lose the ability to receive vessels up here or trucks up the Al-Can, that’s going to cause a problem for food shortages.”
Fisher and his staff are here to help people on the worst day. They also try to prevent the worst day from arriving.
River Watch is a program with the National Weather Service that gives early warning and reconnaissance on how rivers are breaking up, so when ballistic ice moves through communities like Eagle in 2009 and Galena in 2013, and flooding in Buckland in 2021, residents are ready.
TsunamiReady in Alaska is a partnership with NOAA, (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which puts warning systems for residents and visitors in place for coastal communities in case of an earthquake-generated wave reaching inland.
In disaster, Fisher heads up the SEOC, State Emergency Operations Center, the one-stop shop for local communities to call when they need help. The SEOC is the nerve center to be able to respond to all requests and later to coordinate the recovery, he said. The last two years has been challenging, he said, as the coordination of resources with communities has been handled virtually. During the beginning of the pandemic, Fisher said his staff had to adapt to managing a disaster from their kitchen tables.
Fisher speaks highly of the resilience of Alaskans who are often prepared for recurring fires, windstorms, earthquakes, heavy snowfall, and even volcanic eruptions.
In fall 2018, some 13,000 Alaskans applied for State Individual Assistance and some were surprised at what was covered. “It’s important for people to understand that government disaster assistance is not a replacement for insurance and is not intended to make people whole, so if a home is damaged or destroyed, we’re not going to be able to replace it. The program is not there for that. What it is there for is to make a (still standing) home safe, secure and habitable again.”
Things Alaskans can do? Know the perils of where you live, Fisher said. He said gather financial documents now when it’s not a disaster, such as copies of birth, marriage and death certificates and deeds to the home. He adds that Alaskans have to be more resilient than residents of the Lower 48. Food and water for three days isn’t enough. Alaskans need food and water for at least two weeks. And don’t forget your pet’s food, he said.
Fisher urges Alaskans to not be afraid of our inevitable disasters, just prepared.
FirstHand the podcast, Episode 8, was recorded at the Alaska National Guard’s Readiness Center on Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. FirstHand is produced in the Office of Governor Mike Dunleavy by host Patty Sullivan.