2020 was a grueling year for Ketchikan.
As it became clear that Revillagigedo Island would not be spared from the ravages of a deadly pandemic, residents coped with isolation, job uncertainty and a summer without cruise ships.
But as the year wore on, some bright spots appeared: federal stimulus checks, yes, but also free, widespread testing, daily updates on the community's risk level, signage and safety recommendations.
Behind those local efforts — the community risk levels, the testing stations, the virtual government meetings and the daily updates — is the Emergency Operations Center, a group of dedicated bureaucrats whose job is to avert disaster for their community.
Before the pandemic, they were public servants: among them, Kacie Paxton, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough clerk; Abner Hoage, the chief of the Ketchikan Fire Department; Cynna Gubatayao, the borough finance director; Ruben Duran, the borough manager; Mark Hilson, the director of the City of Ketchikan's Public Works Department.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, as the novel coronavirus spread between continents, countries, and communities, they adopted their alter egos: Paxton became the public information officer; Hoage became the incident commander; Gubatayao became the chief of the Finance Section; Hilson became the chief of the Operations Section; Duran, a member of the Policy Group. (That's just a fraction of the positions on the EOC; other sections include Planning, Liaison, Safety, Logistics and Intelligence.)
Membership in the EOC is one of many duties inherent to public service in Ketchikan and elsewhere, a role that is typically exercised only infrequently.
In 2020, it came to define a year of frustration, perseverance and hope.
In interviews with the Ketchikan Daily News during the week of the one-year anniversary of the first case detected in Ketchikan, they reflected on the moments that defined their time in the EOC, and on how their experiences shaped them and influenced the way they think about the public they serve.
Ketchikan's Emergency Operations Center began preparing for action by early March of 2020 as states around the country began detecting novel coronavirus infections.
Before the first case was detected, it wasn't clear whether Ketchikan would have to contend with the respiratory infection or, if it did, for how long.
On the afternoon of March 17, 2020, Borough Attorney Glenn Brown became the first person in Ketchikan to test positive for the novel coronavirus, a week after he returned to the island from Oregon.
In the intervening time, he had worked closely with department heads and borough officials. Many office workers were close contacts.
"Everybody was scared," said Hoage. "Information was short and not much [was] available. We didn't know how bad this was. Everything was painting a picture that basically, if you got COVID you were going to die. We couldn't test for it. It was invisible."
Duran moved quickly to evacuate the building by 4 p.m., ordering staff to grab everything they would need and to keep their phones charged.
But that created problems for government functions that weren't designed to be run from staff members' homes.
"We had to scramble to keep things going," Duran said. "We had a few people (who) said, 'I have to go back — we can't do payroll. We can't do certain documents from online. We have to go in.'"
With the help of KPU, he said, "we were able to finally get some of that worked
out." It took them about three days to resume operations.
Even with things back up and running, the transition was hectic for many borough staff, especially because the rest of the community was reacting to the case with other closures and shutdowns.
"It was a little crazy," Gubatayao said. "I was initially set up in my living room and I took over the dining room table and had cables and cords going everywhere. And at the time we were actually working from home, there were three of us trying to work from home in different parts of the house."
The White Cliff Building was closed for seven weeks after the first case was detected.
"Yeah, it was a great adjustment, but it's still amazing how well we did," Duran said.
The switch to remote work also affected the Emergency Operations Center.
Many aspects of the Ketchikan EOC's emergency response playbook didn't apply. The EOC is designed for short-term emergencies, such as floods, earthquakes and landslides, not extended emergencies like pandemics. Even though most members had prior experience training for and dealing with actual EOC situations, they weren't prepared for scenarios that would unfold over months.
"There was no step-by-step training book for a pandemic emergency," Paxton said.
To boot, EOC protocols aren't designed for scenarios where all deliberations and decisions are made remotely.
“We had to completely recreate an electronic EOC process because we were meeting remotely," Gubatayao explained. "Prior to this, the entire EOC process was designed for people to be sitting in the same room next to each other and handing paper down a line to the next person to do their piece.”
Because of the novelty of the virus, Duran said, the EOC's operations and recommendations changed constantly."
"The EOC was constantly adjusting because the rules were changing, between what the CDC was saying, or the Department of Treasury was saying on the money side or on the operations side," Duran said. "It was a constant adjustment, (and) folks, I know, were frustrated by that, but ... there was no playbook to work off of."
"There was nothing routine," he added. "The phones (would) start ringing (at) 6:30 (a.m.) and at seven o'clock at night, I was still working."
It was hard for staff to learn new tools for working remotely, Duran said — first conference calls, then WebEx and webinars.
"That was a learning process," he said. "It was just very long days in the beginning.”
In the weeks after it became clear that Ketchikan would not be spared from the coronavirus, EOC members recounted how their days became consumed by the demands of emergency response.
Every member of the EOC who spoke said they had to forego extracurriculars and volunteering, both due to the workload of EOC duties and because of the closure and cancellations of local meetings.
Paxton had to pause her work on completing her college degree. She was taking a sociology class before the pandemic hit; in the initial months of emergency response, she said between 75% and 80% of her time during the first two months was spent attending to EOC duties.
Hoage had managed to anticipate that.
“I was fortunate that I went to my boss, the city manager, and explained that I thought I probably needed to focus my effort on the EOC so that we could have a good coordinated response there. And he agreed, and he was willing to appoint someone to act as the fire chief so that I could kind of step away from that role and focus solely on keeping the COVID response going and responding to that appropriately.”
“Sleep, family time, personal time — there was none of that for four months," Hoage said. "It was wake up, respond to COVID, eat, respond to COVID, go to bed, think about COVID and wake up and do it all again. … There really wasn’t anything else."
"I went from roughly 40 hours a week to 15, 12 to 15 hours a day, every day, seven days a week," he said. "And that was probably for at least two months, maybe.”
He added: “My wife’s sitting behind me and she’s holding up four fingers saying that it was closer to four months.”
“That first seven weeks, it was a dead run. Everybody. ... I don't care what your title was," Duran said. "Staff assistants were working a lot, (and) we would tell them, you need to put in for your overtime and they say, 'Oh, I'm fine. I'm good.' ... "I would suspect that they did a lot more work than they were put in for, just because it's their community, too.”
He explained that the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly was flexible, which helped greatly.
“The Assembly was very good about allowing us to adjust and adjust and adjust. And we were just reporting back, ‘Here's what we're doing,'" Duran said. "They gave us the trust, the staff, to make a lot of hard decisions."
Testing and operations
One of the first barriers the EOC had to address was ensuring that the island had testing capabilities and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, an effort led by Hilson.
The pandemic, he said, “just turned my routine completely upside down.”
"In the very beginning, everybody was just learning, and it wasn't clear what it meant to be COVID-19 positive. It took time to figure all that out. And we weren't even thinking about a vaccine. That was nowhere near the horizon," he said.
“The first several weeks, everything was new and changing so fast. I mean, I remember putting in just crazy long hours, just trying to come up to speed on everything that was just so new,” said Hilson. “I remember days where, working from home, I was just trying to research different things, run something to ground. I would work until I'd fall asleep at my laptop, and then wake up and realize I still had the mouse in my hand and it's midnight now and I was asleep for two hours,” Hilson said. “Those were the kind of days … burn it early, and they went really late and a hundred-plus hour weeks, week after week. And that was just the reality. That's what it was.”
To complicate matters, Hoage explained, every other community in America was vying for those very same resources at the same time.
"The whole world was looking for the same supplies we were, and the challenges of, one, locating some of these supplies, two, then being able to procure them before someone else procured them, because everybody wanted them,” Hoage explained.
"There seemed to be just a lack of resources available, and trying to identify how we could get our testing numbers to where we wanted them to be, how we could make sure that ... there was a way to work around a shortage of test media? How can we get a supply of something here that just isn't available? And trying to do all those kind of workarounds in the beginning, all the while not fully understanding what the implication of the pandemic was," Hilson said.
As testing got underway, Gubatayao was responsible for making sense of the myriad complicated federal and state relief and reimbursement plans to cover the costs of that testing and the community's mitigation procedures.
“Early on, I had to do a lot of research to understand the (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reimbursement and how that works," Gubatayao said. "I have never been involved in any kind of an emergency response and had never tried to submit for reimbursement, and that is a fairly complex program with a lot of guidance.
“What added a lot of stress to the situation is that we were talking about significant dollars. And I ran the risk of losing a lot of the community's money if I didn't put in the effort to understand how the program worked and how to protect the resources that we were spending as best I could," she said. "So there was a lot of work and research — and … that's just learning how the program works.
“And then once you're ready to submit for reimbursement, it's a very complex, time-consuming grant reimbursement process. There's a lot of paperwork that goes into it, a lot of detail,” she continued. “I'm still, of course, working my way through that. I submitted stuff for the March through June (of 2020) time period. Then I'm in the process of finalizing my submissions for the June through December (of 2020) time period. And then when we hit June again, I'll do another six months' worth of reimbursements.”
That was before the staff had to sort through new aid from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed into law about two weeks after the first case in Ketchikan.
The massive relief bill included substantial cash injections for state and local government and money for business relief, but for weeks it wasn't clear what the money could and couldn't be used for.
Through what would have been the early months of Ketchikan's 2020 cruise ship season, the EOC's finance section was focusing on getting clarity on relief funds, all while the city and borough finance departments were weighing how to account for the lack of tourism in budgeting for next year.
Once the guidance was clear, the island's finance departments then needed to devise eligible programs that would help the community, then set up the infrastructure to administer those programs.
“The volume of work that came through our department must have tripled,” Gubatayao said. “We were doing check runs three times a week, maybe four times a week sometimes, during the heaviest season with all the CARES Act (programs).”
Communication with the public was another crucial part of the EOC's mitigation efforts, something that Hoage said was a top priority early on.
“We could see this was going to be a lot of information to the public and coordination of effort, as opposed to any one thing that we might do that's going to … be the silver bullet that takes care of the situation,” Hoage said.
That was a challenge, especially early on, when the EOC was still scrambling to figure out what was safe and what wasn't — evaluating the risks and trying to sift through the noise to produce meaningful local guidance.
Beyond that, the EOC had to try to reach as many residents as possible. To that end, Paxton said, at one point the EOC was using no fewer than 17 different kinds of media to communicate with the public, including flyers, banners, press conferences, Facebook livestreams and mailers.
At times, the messaging was frustrating, Hoage and Paxton said, especially when community members were skeptical of the EOC’s guidance.
"There were some frustrating times — it was fairly early on — where I would get questions constantly, almost like armchair quarterbacking from a lot of different people who thought they knew what needed to happen," Hoage said. "When you look back on it now, it's probably more of that fear factor. But people just wanted information, and the information wasn't available. ... I wouldn't say (I was) cynical. I'm sure there were frustrating times. And there were times where I said, 'Why can't people just listen? I mean, I'm doing this full time!' But it's not about that. I have to earn that trust sometimes, and you have to remember that."
Paxton said that it was important to try to listen and understand when people felt frustrated by the guidance, and look for common ground.
“The thing that really helps is to just be real with people,” Paxton said. “When you're talking with someone who's upset or angry, it just really helps to be real. ... And people relate to that. And ... just say, my family has been affected by this, too. I've been affected by this, too. And then you can find a place where there is always something that you can agree on with people, because we're all going through the pandemic. We've all been changed. We've all had a level of fear. We've all had a level of uncertainty. We've all been impacted in one way or another.”
She said it was especially hard to make decisions about closing facilities, parks and beaches knowing that many in the community were struggling to stay afloat.
"Those were really tough — tough decisions to make, tough messages to share. We hoped that it would be temporary, but, again, we were on the beginning end of it, so we didn't really know what it looked like."
"Those were some really tough times, when a lot of businesses were still closed, before the travel had opened back up again, when the economy was hurting — those were really tough, tough days for everyone in the community," she said. "Lots of questions to ask and answer. Lots of citizens had questions. People were hurting financially, people weren't able to be able to travel. They weren't able to work. Everything had changed, no matter who you are, everything had changed, whether students or teachers or business owners, everything was different for everyone. And it was just a difficult time for everyone.
"And so, looking for things to be positive — that's when we really saw the community rally together, with messages of working together. That's when we saw our businesses, finding some creative solutions, coming up with websites when they didn't have one before, coming up with curbside delivery or pickup options, finding different and creative ways to make services available to people," she said. "It was kind of dark for a while there, but then you ... really saw the resiliency of people coming together.
"And that kind of happened throughout the year. There were these ebbs and flows, and each time there was a state announcement, it was really tough to get that message out, but you found that people really did step up to the plate. People really did want to comply, it was just that they didn't always understand," she added. "That was a lot of our role, is helping them — first, our self-learning, and then helping people to understand."
As the weeks and months wore on, most EOC members who spoke with the Daily News said the constant workload began to drain them.
Gubatayao said she had to remind herself to take breaks.
“I learned to at some point in the evening, just turn off
the computer because there was always going to be more work to do. So instead of trying to stay there and put in another couple of hours in the evening or whatever, just turn it off and pick it up the next day. And so even when I was working the seven days a week, I'd turn the computer off on Friday night and go in Saturday morning, turn it on, work for a while, then turn the computer off because it just, if it was on, there was always something that needed my attention and needed my work. So I had to train myself to really just walk away for periods of time."
Hoage said he hit a "wall" of frustration with the constant decision-making.
"Oh yeah," he said. "Multiple times."
But the EOC was pervaded by a feeling of perseverance, bolstered by the urgency of the issue.
"Every day we'd see, it seemed like we wouldn't make progress, but we had a strong sense of perseverance," Hilson said. "I mean, there was just no option other than forward. And we had to move forward and keep going. ... So, I never felt like, 'Oh, this is hopeless.' Or, 'I just hit a wall.' 'I can't continue.' Never felt that. I felt that we just had to keep hitting it hard and something would break loose and we would overcome it, and ... we would make progress and kept pushing and pushing, eventually, that's exactly what happened. We were able to overcome that and make a difference."
Paxton explained that "the beauty of the EOC" is that everyone in the organization has a backup member who can take over their responsibilities when needed.
For her, that person is Kim Simpson, KPU's customer service supervisor and the EOC's deputy public information officer. Simpson was able to take over Paxton's duties in the fall so Paxton could focus on conducting the borough's elections.
"No one is completely irreplaceable," she said. "We were even able to allow Abner to take a vacation for a couple of weeks. And when he went on vacation, (Planning Section Chief) Dave Owings and (Incident Commander) Theresa Ruzek and I, split up the (duties) — and Mark Hilson — that took four of us."
Hoage said he and his family went to Disney World in January. Even then, he wasn't able to break out of his EOC habits entirely.
"We felt completely safe there. They had good (mitigation) programs in place," Hoage said. "Unfortunately I found myself looking at it, thinking about if we could implement (those programs). But yeah, I did manage to turn all my phone calls and all my emails over to other folks within the EOC for that 10-day period. And that January trip was ... my first real time off since March of 2020."
Things are winding down from their peak, members agreed.
Mark Hilson gave command of his section of the EOC to the deputy Operations Section chief, Morgan Barry, after Port and Harbors Director Steve Corporon retired in August. (Hilson is the acting director of Port and Harbors until a full-time replacement for the position is found.) He said on Wednesday that he’s still playing a role in EOC operations, though.
Hoage said the workload has lightened.
“I am to a point that I do end my day usually by about six o'clock now, where before I would still be sitting at the computer working and not even realize that it was eight or nine o'clock at night," Hoage said.
"I was working from home,” he added. “I was fortunate in that respect, I suppose. ... My wife was able to make my meals and I would take them at the computer on the phone, generally on a conference call. That was just, that was my life. ... There really wasn't anything else.”
Gubatayao said she's finding her own outlets.
“They were always giving me advice about getting out, and getting a walk and getting exercise — I was never very good at any of that,” Gubatayao said.
“But I did learn to cook a little bit,” she added, then laughed: “It only took 50 years and a pandemic.”
The end of the tunnel
Most EOC members that the Daily News interviewed agreed that things felt like they were changing for the better around November, when the first batch of vaccines for the disease became available.
That's when, for many of them, they began to see “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some members identified something else that gave the community an advantage long before vaccines were ready: cooperation.
"This has really brought together leaders from the borough and the two cities in our community," Paxton said. "We worked very well together. We were able to accomplish great things in very short periods of time when they needed to happen. So, yes, we found ways to communicate quickly with a broad array of people throughout the community, throughout the state."
Duran said the coordination between the City of Ketchikan and the borough on rent and mortgage assistance programs and other relief programs was a testament to that.
"I think that's one reason that the Alaska Municipal League awarded Abner, the City of Ketchikan and the borough a special award, because they looked to us and said, 'You guys really (are) kind of seamless,'" Duran said. "How? Fortunately, (Ketchikan City Manager) Karl (Amylon) and I, and (Ketchikan) Mayor (Bob) Sivertsen and (Borough) Mayor (Rodney) Dial, we all know each other well enough to where (we could say), 'Look, we just ... need to find a way to cooperate with each other.'"
He said that was something many other communities in the country struggled with.
"I had other managers asking how we did this because they said, 'I can't.' And this was in several other states, including Alaska," he said. "They can't get their city and county mayors to talk to each other or to come to any agreement on anything associated with ... this pandemic. ... There was infighting across the country, within organizations of not agreeing."
Have they each changed because of their service on the EOC?
“That’s a hard question,” Gubatayao said. “I have no idea. I might be too close to myself to be able to see.”
She added later: “I guess as a local public servant, I always knew that I was working for the betterment of my community. I would always work to try and protect the community's resources and whatnot — that was always one of my goals. But I think working with the EOC and worrying about case counts and worrying when we heard that someone was hospitalized, I think that brought home very clearly, that I really was working to help protect the public, and (that) the public's not just some faceless group of people, it's my friends and neighbors.”
Hoage said the experience wasn't a transformative one for him.
“I don't think so, no. To me, I still see that I'm doing my job," he said. "I think that's part of my job.”
Paxton said it had changed her.
"Sure. I think in a lot of ways, yes. ... I've learned a lot. I've grown a lot. I can't withstand this pace forever, but I have grown quite a bit," she said.
She said the experience reaffirmed her role and commitment to the community.
“I've always had, really, a positive outlook on our public service and community service. Clerks as a whole are, are neutral, unbiased, helpful, usually willing to go above and beyond, but through serving in both capacities this year and ... working very long hours and going above and beyond, I have truly felt that it has been like community service," she said. "So sometimes I have to remind myself when I feel tired or I look back over a week or a month. And I think, ‘Wow, I didn't do the things that I would have normally been doing this time of year. I haven't been volunteering for this group or that group, or I had to say no to this,’ and I have to remind myself, 'But you have been volunteering for the community for all these things.'”
Duran, who had experience dealing with disasters in previous government management jobs before he worked for the borough, said it was “hard to say” but likened it to other disasters he's dealt with.
"It's like all the other events, whether it's hurricanes or other natural disasters," Duran said. "You come out of it and you look at things differently."
For Hilson, working on the EOC was deeply affirming.
“It really brought work to a new level of seriousness, and I'm coming from a public works background that's already very serious," Hilson said. "I don't know how you could serve on the EOC during the pandemic, and a year later say it really never affected me, (that) I do my work the exact same way. I certainly can't say that. It was apparent that I was surrounded by people of immense talent and, collaboratively, I believe that our efforts added up to more than the sum of our individual talent. It's just a great team."