Golovin Races Freeze Up As It Attempts To Recover From Typhoon Merbok

Thomas Brown

When Typhoon Merbok exited Western Alaska, it took an entire village’s winter food supplies—and much of their shelter—with it. Days before freeze up begins, Golovin scrambles to recover.

Normally, the 200 people living in 64 homes in the village of Golovin, AK, spend fall preparing for winter. This fall, they are shoveling sand and mud instead.

Set along the coast of the Bering Sea in Western Alaska—one of the most isolated regions in the entire United States—Golovin is the epitome of remote. Just 60-plus roadless miles as the raven flies east of Nome, AK, the only way to travel to Golovin, or between it and its neighboring communities, is by plane, boat, or, in winter by snowmachine or dogsled. Living here, some 200 miles below the Arctic Circle, is also expensive: Milk costs up to $9 a gallon; gasoline costs roughly the same. There is no Costco or Walmart nearby—not within 500 miles. In Western Alaska, everything has to be barged or flown in. 

Inside a home devastated by Typhoon Merbok in Golovin, AK. Photo by Austin Handle.

Those staggering costs-of-living and the region’s remote location mean that everyone in Golovin practices a subsistence lifestyle. Summer and fall are spent hunting, fishing, and berry-picking, then canning, smoking, or freezing that harvest in order to survive the long, dark Alaskan winter.

This year, that hard work was met with catastrophe. 

On September 16 and 17, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok swept across the Aleutian Islands, then struck the coast of Western Alaska, delivering rain, hurricane-force winds, and water surges as high as 50 feet to more than 1,000 miles of coastline. Around 50 communities spread across an area larger than the state of Texas were impacted by the storm. 

Coastal erosion and melting permafrost have been collapsing buildings and forcing evacuations of villages in Western Alaska for years. However, what had been transpiring slowly over decades happened overnight when the storm hit and washed miles of seacoast away. According to the Alaska Department of Transportation some communities saw more than 100 feet of shoreline disappear after the storm.

As the remnants of the typhoon swept through the region, knocking out power for days, Golovin found itself under 6 feet of water. When the floods receded, one-third of the 64 houses in town had been severely damaged and at least seven were almost completely destroyed. Most of the homes that remained were filled with water and sand, ruining refrigerators and food stores—devastating for the mostly Alaska Native population of the town. Even those homes largely unscathed were without electricity for days. Freezers defrosted and, across the village, months’ worth of moose and seal meat, fish, and berries spoiled and rotted—an entire town’s winter’s provisions were gone in a flash. 

Debris from Typhoon Merbok outside a hime in Golovin, AK. Photo by Austin Handle.

Few were spared by the storm. Even a state senator’s home was filled with feet of sand and mud. Touring Golovin days later he rallied for disaster aid for the village and its neighbors. 

“Our resilient region is in dire need of long-term, practical support,” said Alaska State Senator Donny Olson. “Our people need subsistence foods lost during the storm, and we’re desperately constructing housing for dozens of primary residences damaged or destroyed in Golovin. Aging infrastructure and modern costs, coupled with storm destruction, has left many in an unprecedented and unimaginable situation.” 

On September 26, Team Rubicon dispatched a recon team to Golovin to assess needs and determine how the veteran-led disaster response nonprofit might be able to help with recovery efforts. 

The situation is dire, according to Team Rubicon’s mission planning chief for the operation, Chandler Alford. “The first signs of winter are already here, and our people have a challenging next couple of weeks,” explains Alford. “They now must clear their homes from the storm damage, catch up on pre-winter preparations, and become food secure before the arctic winter rolls in. They can’t do it by themselves. It takes the efforts of not only their whole community but the communities around them.” 

Even if winter was not a mere week away, and Golovin villagers had the time to refill their winter stores, they no longer have the means to do so: most of their subsistence equipment was decimated by the storm. They have no rifles to go hunting, but even if they did, their ammunition has been ruined. Their fishing boats, skiffs, and launches were ravaged, sunk, or damaged. Their hunting cabins were destroyed, fish racks for drying salmon are gone, and smokehouses have been rendered useless. The arctic land and sea may be their grocery store, but without tools to hunt and fish and preserve, they can’t access it anymore. A people used to self-sufficiency have been robbed of the weapons and tools they need to be self-sufficient.

Mucking out a home flooded by Typhoon Merbok in Golovin, AK. Photo by Austin Handle.

In hopes of relieving a bit of the burden, six more Team Rubicon volunteers, or Greyshirts, headed to Golovin on September 29 to join the recon team. They will spend the first week 10 days of October mucking out homes and providing expedient home repair before the ground freezes the following week. Since the small village’s food storage was completely lost, the team brought food with them for the operation, and flew all equipment and supplies needed for the operation in from Anchorage, 450-plus miles away. To support the community going forward, all excess or unused equipment and supplies will be left in Golovin at the end of the operation.

Due to the destruction to homes and lack of housing facilities, Greyshirts expected to camp in tents for the duration of the operation. Instead, the Chinik Eskimo Community is feeding the volunteers every night, and Greyshirts are sleeping in the Tribe’s tool/equipment shop.

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