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As storms continue in Western Alaska, residents wonder: Where is Gov. Parnell?

Megan Edge
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo
Damage from flooding that occurred during a winter storm in November 2013.
Mike Joseph photo
Ice buildup from coastal flooding in the Western Alaska community of Kotlik. Nov. 11, 2013
Patricia Okitkun photo
Ice buildup from flooding in the community of Kotlik. Nov. 11, 2013.
Patricia Okitkun photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo

Residents and family members of residents of Kotlik, a Western Alaska community of about 630 people, have been asking Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to publicly acknowledge the storms that have been ripping through Western Alaska, ruining the village's water supply and sewage systems, and hoping he declares the storms and subsequent flooding as disasters for remote villages like Kotlik and nearby Stebbins and Unalakleet.

In a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon, Rita Asgeirsson made a plea for assistance from the village of Kotlik:

With no acknowledgment from our state of Alaska Governor Sean Parnell, we are in deep trouble. Planes have had trouble flying in with supplies, although a couple made it. Estimated 200 people and counting are now evacuated to the Kotlik School as we speak. Last flood was 9 feet above high tide with utter devastation, tonight's predicted at 8 feet. A third flood predicted later this week. We need the Alaska National Guard and Coast Guard on hand to respond immediately. We cannot predict what a second impact of ocean ice and water surge will do to our community. While we are in the news, we are also blatantly ignored and unacknowledged by the state of Alaska that a disaster has occurred, is occurring and will occur again.

Asgeirsson is just one of many who reached out to Parnell using social media.

The Western Alaska storms began late last week. Alaska Dispatch requested comment from Parnell on Wednesday, but was deferred to the Office of Emergency Management.

"It feels like we are being ignored, like we are not important," said Asgeirsson, who calls Kotlik home. "It feels like we don't matter because we are not thousands of people and we aren't in an urban area."

Many expressed particular disappointment that Parnell on Tuesday had acknowledged the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillippines, but had issued no official statement on storms and flooding in Western Alaska that had damaged homes and infrastructure and continued to threaten communities. In response to criticism on the governor's official Facebook page, a statement made shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday read:

We appreciate and share the concern for our fellow Alaskans in Kotlik and Emmonak. We have had teams of folks in these communities, and others along the Western Coast, to determine their needs and start damage assessments. We have an entire division that works every day to provide emergency services throughout Alaska. When the need arises, we are there!

Parnell's press secretary Sharon Leighow was also adamant Wednesday that "the governor's office has been involved every step of the way."

"Governor Parnell is briefed every night on the storms in the state and things that could affect the state," said McHugh Pierre, deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. "His direction is to make sure we help communities, save lives and prevent, as much as we can, loss of infrastructure."

A disaster declaration for Kotlik and other communities in the region is not necessary at this point, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman at the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Zidek said disaster response efforts have the funds and resources to accomplish what "needs to be done" without a declaration. He said those funds are more useful in the rebuilding phase. And typically, he added, a disaster declaration isn't made until after the damage is assessed.

When the Southcentral town of Talkeetna flooded in the fall of 2012, Parnell made a special appearance in that community of just under 900 to declare a disaster in the midst of the flooding.

"The governor does have the power to verbally declare a disaster, without a damage assessment, but we still need to go out and quantify the damage to figure out what programs are activated," said Zidek.

An emergency management specialist is headed to Unalakleet -- the hub for the Department of Homeland Security as the storm continues -- but doesn't plan to make the 100-mile trek to Kotlik until Thursday, as another storm is supposed to hit late Wednesday night.

The Red Cross of Alaska will be sending two disaster workers to Kotlik on Thursday, said Laura Spano, a spokeswoman with the aid organization. Right now she said it seems about 15 houses have been severely damaged. 

Contact Megan Edge atmegan(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @megtedge.