LEPC is briefed on foreign threats, avian influenza

Nome’s Local Emergency Planning Committee, or LEPC, gathered on May 23 for a regular meeting where they heard presentations on nation-state threat and the status of avian influenza in the region.
Chairman of the LEPC, Tom Vaden, asked Director of the Department of Homeland Security for Alaska Bryan Fisher to speak to the committee about current national security concerns, with western Alaska’s proximity to Russia and the Bering Strait.

Nation-state threats
Fisher briefed the committee on current information the U.S. has on “near peer adversaries” China, Russia and North Korea. China is currently preparing to absorb Taiwan as soon as 2027, he said. Taiwan is an important ally to the U.S. and major producer of semiconductor chips which are used in countless everyday technology like smartphones, televisions and refrigerators. “The disruption with China trying to reclaim Taiwan is going to impact the entire globe. You can think of shortages in terms of the global pandemic that we just went through,” Fisher said.
China’s goal with the takeover is to ensure the Chinese Communist Party remains in power while appearing as a global superpower capable of taking control of other nations, according to the presentation. Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China, has announced he is requiring the People’s Liberation Army to be prepared in calendar year 2027 for the “acquisition” of Taiwan, which doesn’t leave the U.S. a lot of time to prepare for what may happen, Fisher said.
Fisher also reported that Chinese companies buy land near and around military installations on U.S. soil and infiltrate water and wastewater utilities and industrial control systems.
“They’re not there anymore just to spy, just to steal intellectual property or conduct espionage. They have the capability. And it’s been demonstrated, and we have been working across the country to mitigate their ability to cause physical impacts to water and wastewater systems,” Fisher told the committee. This is potentially a tactic to encourage the U.S. to not defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion.
“If the U.S. were to go to war with China to support our ally Taiwan, a lot of that activities to support that effort overseas is going to flow from and through Alaska. So, we are absolutely in the middle of this, and I would say on the frontlines of the efforts to curb aggression and to potentially respond if we were to go to war,” Fisher said.
The presentation continued with a brief overview of threats from North Korea and Russia. Fisher stated that North Korea’s frequent cyber-attacks are criminal and are funding the Kim regime.
Russia is currently trying to “regain their standing in the geopolitical world,” according to Fisher, and focus on the war in Ukraine, but there are concerns for power in the Arctic.
“I will tell you, I’ve been doing this for 30 years and we thought we were done with the Civil Defense kind of posture that we had after World War II and when we won the Cold War, but we’re right back in it and I feel like we all as a nation, as a state, need to be putting our own civil defense triangle armbands back on, because there is a potential, it’s certainly not guaranteed that Xi is going to invade Taiwan and try to reclaim it, it’s not an absolute certainty that we would respond with military force in time, but the potential is absolutely there.”
Drew McCann asked if there was any knowledge of China or Russia’s perception of the deep draft port Nome is planning to build. Fisher said he has not heard any specific concern related to the port. He did point out a that China owns most cranes on the western seaboard. The cranes have capabilities of connecting to the internet and could be sending information via the infrastructure back to China.
When asked about the expansion of the Alaska State Defense Force, a reserve civil defense force that would become active in the event the active-duty military and Alaska National Guard are deployed overseas. Fisher said the program is currently working to grow in size and capability.

Avian Influenza
Gay Sheffield introduced the discussion on H5N1 avian influenza which has been present in the Bering Strait region. Most recently the virus has spread from birds to mammals, found in foxes in the region, a polar bear in Utqiagvik and a walrus in Norway. Last month the first two cases of avian influenza were contracted by dairy farmworkers in Michigan and Texas, as the virus has spread to cattle.
In his presentation, Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson said the virus is mostly contagious amongst birds. For Bering Strait region, bird migration is a concern. Peterson said the primary recommendation is to not pick up dead birds or harvest sick looking birds, and to extend that concern to other mammals. Wear gloves when handling birds and wash hands before putting them near face and eyes as the virus can spread aerially, but direct contact has higher potential. “I just want to reassure everybody, it’s not likely to pass to a human. And those cases that have passed to humans, the majority of those cases have actually been mild. Treatment is felt to be like human influenza,” Peterson said. NSHC does ask about avian influenza exposure when screening an admitted patient, the director said.
Sheffield added that someone from the United States Department of Agriculture would be coming to swab migratory birds in Safety Sound to test them for H5N1. Since the meeting, that visit has been cancelled. There is no federal presence for marine resources in the region, Sheffield said, this includes harmful algal bloom monitoring and reporting. So all reports of occurrences of avian flu and harmful algal blooms are up to the people of the region. Sheffield said contacts for reporting include her, Kawerak’s subsistence division and the Norton Sound Health Corporation’s office of Environmental Health.

Other Business
Anna Rose MacArthur, Marine Advocate for Kawerak, attended the meeting after being advised by the Port Commission to bring her questions to the LEPC. She inquired about Nome’s emergency readiness as the MS Westerdam, a cruise ship with a capacity of 1,900 passengers, will visit Nome on June 21. With the possibility of a significant number of those passengers entering town, how are emergency services preparing to take on the extra load, MacArthur asked. City Manager Glenn Steckman was present at the meeting and said the city is collaborating with Nome Discovery Tours to plan for activities for everyone. Steckman said the Rec Center is the city emergency shelter and is equipped to shelter 200 people if necessary. With passengers arriving in boats, Steckman said if the amount of people in town gets overwhelming the boat can restrict who gets off the ship. Emergency Preparedness Specialist Kevin Knowlton suggested an amendment to the city’s existing emergency response plan that informs on how to deal with emergencies when a large amount of people are coming into town.


The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112


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