JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has joined Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in seeking to block the U.S. Department of Defense from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for National Guard members who are under state command.
The Pentagon has required COVID-19 vaccination for all service members, including the National Guard and Reserve. Attorneys for the two governors, in an amended lawsuit dated Tuesday, say that when National Guard members are serving the state, the federal government has no command authority. The lawsuit said the mandate is an unconstitutional overstepping of bounds.
The case dealing with Alaska and Texas guard members is an amended version of the challenge filed by Texas earlier this month.
More than 220 members of the Texas Air National Guard and about 40% of Texas Army National Guard members are refusing to be vaccinated for “either religious accommodation needs or otherwise,” according to the lawsuit. About 8% of Alaska Air and Army National Guard members have not received a first dose of any COVID-19 vaccine and of these members, “more than 90% have requested a medical or religious exemption, yet no such exemptions have been granted.”
“A small number of additional Alaska National Guard members are refusing any COVID-19 vaccine,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit names as defendants President Joe Biden, the Department of Defense and military officials.
The White House referred a reporter seeking comment on the lawsuit to the Department of Defense, which did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press.
A federal judge last month ruled against Oklahoma in its lawsuit challenging the vaccine mandates for the state’s guard members.
Melehoko Pauu Ma’ake has been dealing with two big problems since the volcanic eruption in Tonga. The first is reaching her uncle. He’s 84 and lives by himself near the capital, directly in the path of the tsunami.
She laid out the second problem in a Zoom call with some family members a few days after the eruption, as the group considered the best place to send aid money.
“The thing about Tonga is trying — is finding a very trustworthy source,” Ma’ake said. “You know, all of us here, we’ve been to Tonga many times. And we know that when funds go to Tonga, sometimes it really doesn’t go directly to the people.”
She said she trusts the Red Cross and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but she’s still grappling with how best to fundraise in Juneau for her friends and family thousands of miles way in the remote island nation of Tonga. She recently called a group of her extended family to her home to talk about what they know, to maybe figure out how they can help.
Ma’ake was born in Tonga but moved to the U.S. when she was four. Like many Alaskans, she and her husband moved to the state after a visit. She said she decided on Juneau because it’s a good place to raise a family — and they did. Now, when the family gets together, it’s always a sprawling intergenerational mix of babies, family born in the U.S. and family born in Tonga.
Ma’ake estimates that around 200 Tongan people live in Juneau. It’s a tight-knit community. And they’ve got family and friends around the world who are doing the same thing everyone in Juneau is doing — checking social media, texting each other updates and sharing what they know.
Telephone links between Tonga and the rest of the world are slowly being reconnected, but they’re unreliable, and the internet is still down.
“Everyone is trying to get a hold of someone in Tonga,” said Margaret Sekona. “So it’s going to be super hard and complicated, but you have to keep trying.”
Her father, Siua Sekona, said he’s been calling people in Tonga for days with no luck.
“There’s no connection,” he said. “It’s ringing, but there’s nothing like an answering machine or something that you can leave a message [on]. Nothing.”
Siua Sekona grew up in Tonga. Right now, his big concern is fresh water. He said most Tongans are not connected to city water, so they rely a lot on rainwater.
But a lot of the fresh water supply is tainted by volcanic ash and saltwater from the tsunami. A few aid flights have landed, and at least one ship has docked with supplies. But the family worries about there being enough to go around.
At one point, Margaret Sekona sat down at the dining room table hunched over her phone. Her father and Ma’ake huddled in.
Someone on the country’s main island, Tongatapu, managed to get a connection and live-streamed a drive through the devastation.
Margaret turned and looked at her dad. “Can you tell where this is?”
He paused for a moment and then shook his head. “I couldn’t really tell.”
She said she’s surprised to see buildings and houses standing, cars driving along the road. There were broken windows and downed trees, and everything was blanketed in this dark film of mud and ash.
“It’s a little comforting though, for sure, to be able to see at least something,” she said. “But you can still see there’s so much damage.”
She said even though what she sees on the screen is terrible, it’s better than what she imagined.
Siua Sekona said it’s hard to know the extent of the damage right now, but he is hopeful. He has seen what happens after the islands take a hit. He said Tongans are resilient and won’t wait for the help that’s coming from other countries — they’ll help themselves and each other.
“They were sharing everything that they can share, and I was really touched by that,” he said.
He told the family that everything in life happens for a reason.
“I don’t belittle the experience that happens to them because I was one of those victims before. I feel for them, I pray for them. But, [at] the same time, I always look to see what’s coming behind the experience,” he said. “I know that they’ll feel the love and prayers of people everywhere — even people that are not Tongans. It’s amazing how this kind of catastrophe [brings] people together.”
This whole experience takes him right back to his own childhood. In 1982, one of the deadliest storms in Tonga’s history struck. Cyclone Isaac killed six people and left 45,000 people homeless.
When he sees the video on Margaret’s phone, his hands shake.
“It seems that I’m — I relive the experience again,” he said. “Because I know exactly how it feels.”
Siau Sekona said he was on one of the outlying islands at the time, on a mission for the Mormon church. He woke up at 2 a.m. as a storm surge swept him from his bed.
“You know, we were swimming because the wave was so high,” he said.
He remembers that most of the buildings were blown away, and everyone spent the night outside in the dark waiting for the sun to come up so they could figure out what was left behind.
He’s thankful that this time around, the eruption and tsunami happened during the day so at least people were able to see it coming.
As for Ma’ake’s uncle? She still hasn’t talked with him directly. But she finally heard from someone who heard from someone that he’s OK — one less person for her to worry about.
Anchorage’s rapid warm-up caused temperature to jump 11 degrees in one minute, turning streets to ice rinks
Most of Alaska saw a rapid warm-up at the end of last week. As a Chinook wind swept into Anchorage, record-high temperatures hit the city on Friday and Saturday.
Snow melted. Puddles formed. Streets iced over. Jackets were ditched, as one day in the 40s stretched into four in a row. And National Weather Service climate researcher Brian Brettschneider says that hasn’t happened in Anchorage in about a decade.
There are plenty of nicknames for meteorological or climatological phenomena, but Brettschneider — back for our Ask a Climatologist segment — says the Chinook event in Anchorage is not to be confused with a Pineapple Express, or the atmospheric river that slammed Southeast.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Brian Brettschneider: So a Chinook wind is local to having a mountain range nearby where, you know, winds kind of accelerate down the mountain and they heat up as as they compress. And that’s kind of a local phenomenon that’s embedded in a larger pattern of kind of southerly warm flow. So here in Anchorage we’ve had a multi-day Chinook event. And it’s kind of ebbed and flowed in its intensity. But again, that’s kind of local to having mountains nearby, the flow coming from a certain direction over the mountains. When we talk Pineapple Express, we use that in the context of atmospheric moisture. So in Southeast Alaska, they were kind of under the gun of, what we call, an atmospheric river, or what people used to call a Pineapple Express. Again, that’s a moisture thing. That’s separate from the warmth that we’ve been experiencing in the central part of the mainland.
Casey Grove: Gotcha. It seemed like it just swept in really quickly. And by Friday night, things were just melting rapidly. Is there anything exceptional about how quickly that happened, or any way to kind of measure that?
BB: Well, it’s interesting, because especially here in Anchorage, when we get a Chinook flow, there’s often what I call a “Chinook front.” That’s the exceptionally warm air that’s coming down off the mountains, and that overtakes the cooler air that that was in place. And we saw, actually, a couple places in town, notably Merrill Field, an 11-degree jump in temperature in one minute. So these automated stations, they grab a temperature reading every one minute, and it jumped 11 degrees from one minute to the next, which was the largest one-minute jump at any of the automated stations in Alaska in almost a year, anywhere in the state. When we look out over longer time periods, I did an analysis of all the stations in the entire U.S., and Anchorage is pretty far up the list in how often we can get these quick temperature changes in short periods of time. So it’s not uncommon in terms of a rare event, but uncommon in the intensity and the rapidity of that change.
CG: Is there anything climatologically relevant about this in that, you know, you see these events happening more often or they’re more intense as the global climate warms?
BB: Well, you know, when we have these Chinook events in Anchorage, every single time, people ask me, ‘Hey, are these more common? Are these more intense? Are they different than they used to be as kind of a fingerprint of a changing climate?’ And the rather unsatisfying answer is that it’s just really hard to tell. There’ve been changes in instrumentation. How do you define a Chinook is even, you know, one place to start. If you say, well, a Chinook has to have a temperature of 40 degrees and has to have a wind in a general southeasterly direction at a certain speed. We can start to narrow in on it, but as best as we can tell, there may be a small increase in the rate and intensity of Chinook events, but it’s a pretty weak signal.
When the Riverbend Elementary School flooded in Juneau, large fans throughout the school were on to try and dry out the wet carpet and furniture. At the time, school staff thought maybe once everything was dry, they could go back to the building. But it’s going to take a lot longer to repair the school. Three to four weeks is the current estimate.
During the repairs, Riverbend Elementary is temporarily relocated to the Chapel by the Lake church in Auke Bay. It’s not the same, but Riverbend Elementary school principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said the church is able to accommodate most of what they need to keep the school running.
“Smith Hall will be where we do lunch,” Pisel-Davis said. “And kind of an indoor play time because we don’t have a playground anymore. And so we’ll have board games and reading and drawing set up for them to do after they eat their lunch.”
Pisel-Davis said the school will still be able to provide free breakfast and lunch to everyone.
Taped on the walls of the church are some handwritten signs directing people to where the classrooms are.
“Children of our staff made all these very helpful signs for us so that we could know our way around,” Pisel-Davis said.
When Pisel-Davis first took a tour of the church, she knew this would be the best option. They were able to put the classrooms of each grade level near each other. And the students and staff of the school would all be together in one place.
“We were looking at, you know, putting a couple of classrooms, at different schools in the in the district, but it’s just such a gift to be able to stay together,” Pisel-Davis said.
The church was even OK with her turtles in the building.
“But I haven’t picked the perfect spot for them yet because my office is more of a mobile office at this point,” Pisel-Davis said.
Staff are still trying to figure out solutions for other things they don’t have in their new space, like their playground, library, phone system and internet. But for the most part, Pisel-Davis says things are working out, and the new location will even bring some new learning experiences.
“It just gives us such an opportunity to study an environment that’s different than where our school is. And to do some compare and contrast like, our school is by a river. Now our school is by a lake. What’s the same? What’s different? How come?” Pisel-Davis said.
Kindergarten teacher Lindsay Baranovic said the kids will be excited to be back together again, after over a month of being out of the classroom.
“The beauty of coming back together, no matter the space, is that everyone wants to make it work,” Baranovic said. “The kids will have a learning curve for sure, but they have such desire to be together that I think it’ll be just fine.”
She said that teachers are trying to make the classrooms feel familiar to the students, but teachers also weren’t able to bring everything from their old classrooms to the new building.
“Many, many thousands of pounds of boxes were left behind,” Baranovic said.
She said that teachers had to prioritize what to bring, and each teacher’s approach to it was different.
Some teachers were going to mostly work with what they had at the church, but not Baranovic.
“And then there were people like me who, you know, was I spent my two hours at Riverbend, furiously packing everything I could,” Baranovic said.
For her classroom, things for kids to play with was important because play is a big part of their day. For other grades, students’ belongings and textbooks took priority.
Baranovic thinks the first day back is going to feel a lot like the first day of school, especially for the younger kids. They’ll be learning new routines and navigating around a new space.
“Our focus is really going to be on kind of honoring the children’s emotions, as we go through this big change together,” Baranovic said. “And just letting them know that we’re all experiencing the same thing. This is new for the teachers too.”
She said the younger kids, especially in the grade she teaches, kindergarten, haven’t been able to settle in much at all. That change is all they know. Some kids maybe went to some preschool in person, did preschool virtually, or didn’t have any schooling before kindergarten.
So before the school year started, she and the other kindergarten teacher decided to focus on social and emotional learning.
“Because that facilitates problem solving communication, provocations, self-directed learning, all of those pieces that are such key elements for students as they become learners in the real world as well,” Baranovic said.
The teachers also decided to have a theme of collaboration for the 2021-2022 school year, before any of this happened. And Baranovic said this experience has been an opportunity for them as teachers to test themselves on how to be good communicators and to think positively during a stressful time.
The so-called blob that brought warm surface water temperatures to the Gulf of Alaska between 2014 and 2016 has passed.
But the effects of that blob, and a subsequent heat wave in 2019, are not all in the rearview mirror. And researchers are bracing for more as climate change brings with it more ocean warming.
“For an area like the Gulf of Alaska, definitely this is a topic we need to understand better,” said Bridget Ferriss, a research fish biologist with NOAA Fisheries. She edited this year’s Ecosystems Status Report for the Gulf of Alaska, used by federal managers to inform fisheries policy in Alaska.
Last year, researchers continued to track the impacts of recent heat waves on Alaska’s marine species.
Ferriss said a heat wave happens when the sea surface temperature on a given day is warmer than 90% of the temperatures on record for that same day, for five days in a row.
The gulf wasn’t dominated by heat waves in 2020 and 2021 like it was in the years before. But some populations are still responding — for better or worse.
Forage fish, some seabirds and humpback whales in Prince William Sound all seemed to see declines in the gulf related to warm temperatures, with mixed rates of recovery.
Herring, on the other hand, have done great since the heat wave. They thrive in warmer water.
Salmon were likely impacted by the blob as well. Ferriss said decreases in salmon runs in 2020 track with low juvenile salmon survival in the years immediately following.
“I think definite signs are that they were affected by the heat wave,” Ferriss said. “We don’t have a nice concise story yet to really what caused each one.”
NOAA Fisheries Research Biologist Elizabeth Siddon was the editor of the Bering Sea ecosystem report. She’s also taking the long view at how conditions over the years have impacted salmon runs.
“Many of the stories or the things we saw in 2021 were a result of conditions that these organisms — fish or crabs, salmon — have experienced since 2014 when this new warm phase started,” she said.
Siddon has been thinking about three coincident crashes in the Bering Sea — snow crab, salmon and sea-birds.
She said having the historical perspective is important. Understanding the salmon crashes in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, for example, requires following the run through the last several years.
“What we’re seeing this year could be the results of what happened this year,” she said. “Could be the results of what happened two years ago or three years ago.”
Scientists who are monitoring the Bering Sea are looking at another important factor: sea ice.
“When the ice melts, we get this cold, dense water that sinks to the bottom of the Bering Sea,” Siddon said. “And that cold water then changes the distribution of the fish in the Bering Sea.”
She said when sea ice was low and there were no cold pools in the years after the wave, so species were freer to move into the northern Bering Sea. Now, she said NOAA is seeing different combinations of species living there than it has seen in the past.
Reports like NOAA’s are used to inform policy decisions by the council that manages fishing in Alaska’s federal waters. That group, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, closed the Pacific Cod fishery in 2020 after the blob decimated cod stocks in the gulf.
Ferriss said it’s too early to tell if that species is recovering, years after the fact.
“It’s still at a low level since the marine heat wave period,” she said. “And we’re monitoring it and trying to make sure we’re managing that fishery correctly so it can recover.”
She said it’s important for researchers and fisheries managers to stay up to speed on how changes like these impact species in the gulf because the area is changing so rapidly.
That’s true now, just a few years after the blob subsided. But as heat waves continue to increase in the North Pacific, as they are predicted to do, it could be more critical than ever.
A commission tasked with reviewing legislative pay on Tuesday voted to raise the annual salary for Alaska lawmakers but to restrict the daily allowance lawmakers can receive. The changes will go forward unless the Legislature expressly rejects them.
The Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission voted 3-1 to raise the base salary from $50,400 a year to $64,000. The recommendation would cap at $100 a day an allowance that lawmakers could claim during regular sessions and require monthly receipts for reimbursement.
The panel also called for lawmakers to receive a state employee per diem rate plus lodging for special sessions called by a governor, according to commission secretary Kate Sheehan, who is director of the state Division of Personnel and Labor Relations. That rate is currently $60 a day, she said. There would be no per diem if lawmakers call themselves into special session, she said by email.
The recommendation was tweaked from an earlier one, advanced earlier this month, that proposed the salary hike but also a simple allowance cap at $100 a day that would be reimbursement-based. That earlier proposal made no distinctions between regular and special sessions.
Tuesday’s vote came the same day that a new legislative session began in Juneau.
Most special sessions over the last decade have been called by a governor, according to records from the Legislative Affairs Agency.
Currently, the allowance lawmakers are entitled to is $307 a day, based on a federal rate, said Jessica Geary, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency. That is up from $293 a day last year. Per diem can’t be claimed by a legislator if the session is held within 50 miles of their primary home. That means the three lawmakers from Juneau aren’t entitled to per diem during sessions in the capital city.
The commission’s chair, former state Sen. Johnny Ellis, said he thought there was a “good likelihood” lawmakers would reject the recommendations as “inadequate and complicated.” He also said he did not think the recommended changes were durable. Nonetheless, he said he would be a “reluctant” yes, so that the commission would have a “work product” at the end of its endeavors.
The allowance is intended to help with costs related to living part of the year in Juneau, which is accessible by air or water and is a popular destination for cruise ships during the summer.
Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, in written comments to the commission, said expenses in Juneau are “astronomical” in the summer, when special sessions are sometimes held. He said the job of being a legislator is a year-round commitment and that any changes to salary and per diem “should also take into account expenses and foregone revenue for families.”
“We have to be a place that is open to families, because parents’ perspectives are needed in the legislature,” he wrote.
By law, commission recommendations will go through unless a bill rejecting all the recommendations is enacted within 60 days after their submission. The commission also proposed salary increases for the lieutenant governor and state department heads, who last saw increases in 2011 and 2015, respectively, according to a commission report.
The commission proposed a 1% increase for each year since the last salary increases, the report states.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy told the commission he declined a salary increase for his position.
Alaska’s lieutenant governor is Kevin Meyer. He recently announced he would not seek reelection this year. Dunleavy has announced plans to seek reelection. He has not yet announced a running mate.
Since the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation board voted to fire executive director Angela Rodell in December, some state lawmakers have been concerned that the decision was politically motivated.
On Monday, members of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee met with the corporation’s board of trustees chair, Craig Richards, with the intent to better understand the decision. Richards maintained that Rodell was an at-will state employee but declined to give details about why she was fired. A corporation lawyer noted that Rodell has talked about suing the board.
Richards said the meeting with lawmakers itself was political.
“You brought up the chairman of the board to grill me pretty good, I might say, about essentially a personnel decision involving an at-will employee,” he said. “It’s your right to do it, but … you know, there’s politics going both ways here.”
Soldotna Republican Senate President Peter Micciche said the corporation should be focused on growing the fund. And he said he’s concerned that board members are straying from that focus.
“Do we actively separate politics from maximum returns, which is your mission, your vision?” he said. “Because a lot of this sort of reeks of something else.”
Micciche pointed to recent comments by a trustee as a source of concern. Trustee Lucinda Mahoney said she opposed an increase in the financial incentives paid to investment managers at a time when the Legislature has paid for smaller permanent fund dividends than what would be paid under the formula in a 1982 state law.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed a change to the dividend formula that would make them lower than the amount in the current formula but higher than have been paid over the past six years.
The fund has more than $80 billion. For more than 30 years, the main way that money was spent from the fund was for permanent fund dividends. But since 2018, it’s paid for most of the state budget. And the competition between paying for dividends and for state services has been controversial.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz pointed to the large growth in the fund and pointed out that the corporation was recently named one of the best places to work by a trade publication.
“It’s really difficult for us to understand what is the problem with her performance if she’s meeting all of these benchmarks?” Spohnholz said of Rodell.
In response to Richards’ comment that the meeting was political, Spohnholz said that while the Legislature is political by nature, the trustees shouldn’t be.
The fund grew by $30 billion during Rodell’s six years leading the corporation.
Richards said the growth shouldn’t be credited to Rodell, who didn’t manage investments.
Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster said Rodell would have been held responsible if the fund had done poorly.
“I just wanted to say that I think she deserves some of the credit,” Foster said.
Richards acknowledged his point: “And I apologize if that was either exactly what I said or what was taken by it. As the executive director, she was a critical part of the team, and she did a lot of things very well that contributed to the fund’s success — some of the administrative stuff was really good for the fund. And that helped the fund, and it contributed to the fund. My point was only that her responsibility was not the direct supervision of the investments.”
While Richards didn’t give details of why the board fired Rodell, he did say he was concerned by a proposal Rodell made a few years ago to combine her position with that of the chief investment officer.
“That was the incident in which, for me, huge red flags went up,” he said.
Richards said firing Rodell was appropriate. He pointed to negative reviews in her personnel file from some trustees that date back four years.
“I am truly shocked that I am here,” he said. “This is, this is a new one to me, OK? We have a at-will employee that reports to the board who years of documented evidence demonstrates that there were trust problems going both ways between the board and the executive director.”
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson said Rodell may be able to win a lawsuit against the state.
“And I would rather have paid her to do the capable work she was doing than paid her through an operating budget in a case called Rodell v. Alaska,” he said.
Committee chair Sen. Natasha von Imhof, an Anchorage Republican, said the committee would take whatever time is needed to fulfill its oversight duties as it continues to look into Rodell’s firing.
Richards said it would be best for the permanent fund to “move on.”
The first day of the legislative session is Tuesday.