At a magnitude 7.9, last week’s deep-sea earthquake was the most powerful to hit the Western Aleutians in 50 years. The quake didn’t cause any structural damage — but it was a reminder that life in the islands can change in an instant.
The first tsunami warning issued after last Monday’s earthquake didn’t include Unalaska. In fact, the quake’s epicenter was far away from the town – deep underwater, 600 miles across the chain.
But that didn’t stop residents from taking notice.
“A lot of folks might have just caught a little — tidbits of it, such as the word Aleutians — earthquake — evacuation, when the warning was further down the chain,” says Unalaksa public safety director Jamie Sunderland.
He says they started getting calls about the quake and the tsunami risk almost immediately. They only had one dispatcher on duty, and had to scramble to bring in extra staff.
When a tsunami advisory was issued for Unalaska a short time later, he says it was tough to get the message out – that residents didn’t actually need to evacuate. Some were already heading for high ground.
Of course, Unalaska had practiced for a day like this during the statewide tsunami drill just a few months before. But Sunderland says their experience this time, showed some things are out of their control.
“Think back to grade school where they had you do a little exercise where you whisper a certain phrase into someone’s ear, and by the time it comes around the room, the message is completely changed,” he says. “The same thing happens as we pass messages through our various systems, as we try and abbreviate things.”
In Adak – just a couple hundred miles from the quake’s epicenter — the message about getting to high ground was a lot clearer:
“Given the duration and intensity of the earthquake, most people didn’t need much warning to go up there,” says city manager Layton Lockett.
He says they sounded their tsunami siren right after they felt the quake. And together, about 100 Adak residents stopped what they were doing and headed for the town shelter, an old church on a hill.
“It actually worked very well,” Lockett says. “Better than any drill we could have planned for.”
Despite the strength of the quake, Adak didn’t see any damages. In fact, the disaster’s only victims may not have been people or property at all.
Seabirds on nearby Buldir Island build their nests in rocky cliffs. When the earthquake hit, parts of those cliffs collapsed or slid away – crushing some eggs and killing chicks in the process.
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge director Steve Delehanty was visiting Adak during the quake. He says there’s no way to tell how many of Buldir’s kittiwakes, murres and auklets were lost. But he also says it’s part of the natural cycle – the birds are well adapted to a changeable environment.
“There’s a short-term impact to birds, but it’s the very forces of nature that those birds depend on in the long run to provide their habitat,” Delehanty says.
The same is true of the people that live on the chain. Life in the Aleutians means expecting the unexpected – from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes and tsunamis – even when all that washes ashore is a wave less than a foot tall.
The White House has issued a report laying out the costs of not expanding Medicaid.
Alaska is one of 24 states that rejected federal dollars to increase access to Medicaid, preferring instead to study how those who would have qualified are currently receiving care. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez joins us to talk about how the study judges Alaska.
Lori Townsend: So, what’s in this report?
Alexandra Gutierrez: The report looks at two big things: The economic costs of denying Medicaid access and the health costs.
There are 26,000 Alaskans who currently make too much money to get Medicaid coverage, but not enough to qualify for subsidized health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The White House Council of Economic Advisors says that if Alaska had taken federal money for expansion, the state would have increased its economic output by $250 million over the next three years. Doctor visits would have gone up by 70,000, and hundreds of jobs would be added to the state’s economy. It also goes beyond the macro picture by looking at how many of those people who fall into the Medicaid gap would avoid catastrophic hospital bills and how many wouldn’t have to borrow money to pay for their care.
Now as far as public health is concerned, the Council of Economic Advisors projects that a lot more routine screenings would be performed on lower-income Alaskans. They estimate that 900 more mammograms would be done every year, along with 3,800 cholesterol screenings, if the people who fall into the Medicaid gap were to get coverage.
LT: How is the Parnell administration reacting to this information?
AG: It doesn’t sound like they’re quite buying some of these claims. I spoke with Bill Streur, who is the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, and here’s a piece from our interview:
STREUR: It reads more like a marketing brochure than it reads like a deep analysis.”
He sees the report as a political weapon, meant to put pressure on state governments that have chosen not to expand Medicaid. The way Medicaid expansion would have worked in Alaska is that the state would pay a small amount of the cost with the federal government taking on the lion’s share. And one of the things the White House’s numbers suggests is that Medicaid expansion pays for itself through the ripple effect to the state’s economy.
Streur’s skeptical of that, and he’s relying on the state’s own Medicaid Reform Advisory Group to figure out what role Medicaid plays in the state’s economy, how the program can be improved, and how to address people falling into the gap. That advisory group will finish its report this fall, and Streur says if Parnell is going to revisit the question of expanding Medicaid, it’ll be after they release their conclusions.
LT: Last year, a lot of different groups, like the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, the Alaska Federation of Natives, and the NAACP, were pushing Gov. Sean Parnell to go ahead with Medicaid expansion. Is this going to come up as a campaign issue?
Parnell’s two biggest challengers have both criticized him for rejecting the federal Medicaid money, and have said that accepting it would be one of their first acts as governor if elected.
Independent candidate Bill Walker lists it as one of his top priorities on his website, and it seems like every other week that Democrat Byron Mallott is now sending a press release mentioning the governor’s Medicaid decision. And as a Senate Democrat running for reelection, Mark Begich has also gotten in on the act, calling on Parnell to change his mind.
Now, whether Parnell will, there’s no indication of that. It hasn’t been his prerogative at this point.
A pop-up subsistence school has opened in a remote corner of the Aleutians. Atka’s second-annual culture camp is meant to keep Unangan traditions going strong.
Earlier this spring, Danny Snigaroff visited the campsite where he’d be teaching younger folks how to fish and hunt.
“At culture camp, we don’t eat no hot dogs — no beef hamburgers, nothing [like that],” Snigaroff said. “It’s all Native food.”
Snigaroff and other Unangan elders grew up on sea lions, birds, and seal. And they’re still staples in Atka. That’s because most residents are still living a traditional subsistence lifestyle.
But it’s not as common in other Aleutian communities.
“There’s just not been a lot of transmission of all that knowledge and skills,” says Crystal Dushkin.
She’s the director of cultural affairs for Atka’s tribal council. Dushkin helped organize the community’s first-ever culture camp last summer. Putting traditional foods at the center made sense.
“It’s very specialized. It’s not something you could learn out of any kind of book,” Dushkin says. “I mean, sure, you could learn anatomy and all kinds of things about animals. But you can’t learn what these elders have to teach from any book.”
Or, in a classroom. That’s why the camp is being held on Korovin Beach in Atka. It’s a good place to learn about and gather plants. And it’s a good place to actually make camp.
“We’ll have all our meals and sleep out in the tents, whoever wants to,” says Dushkin, right up until the last day.
It falls on a Russian Orthodox holiday. So to honor saints Peter and Paul — and celebrate the end of camp — the village will hold a potluck. It’s another chance to gather around the foods that have sustained the culture for centuries.
A program airing this Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel tries to capture the majesty of the 49th state. Toby Beach is the producer and director of Aerial America. The show features all 50 states, but only Alaska was given a two hour treatment rather than one. Beach says the program cuts through the distorted view of Alaska that people may get from the flood of so-called reality TV shows about the state.
A lot of fishing boats were removed from the Bering Sea crab grounds after rationalization prompted a huge surge in quota stacking and consolidation of the fleet. Some crab boats sit unused in harbors around the state, others are being used as tenders in other fisheries, but in Kodiak, one has been turned into a strip club.
The dream of homesteading and living off the land is part of the Alaskan mystique. Few succeed. The couple who owns Chugach Farm, have made it work on only one acre in the middle of the woods in Chickaloon.
This week, we’re visiting the interior village of Tanana. Donna May Folger is mayor of Tanana.
It will soon be decision time for Alaska voters on which Republican should face incumbent U-S Senator Mark Begich in November. Each candidate has an hour-long live opportunity to answer phone calls from public radio listeners statewide. Mead Treadwell has done it. And now it’s Dan Sullivan’s turn.
HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network
- Dan Sullivan, U.S. Senate candidate
- Callers Statewide
- Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
- Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
- Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.