WASHINGTON -- The federal government could be doing more to help relocate Alaska Native communities whose vulnerability to erosion and flooding has only worsened with global warming, concludes a report from the Government Accountability Office.
Congress should designate a lead federal agency to work with the state of Alaska, the report found, saying that a lack of agency leadership "has emerged as an impediment to village relocation efforts." Not only that, a lead agency could set priorities to avert disaster rather than wait to deal with its consequences, according to the report.
"The paradox is that funding would be made available to respond to a disaster," the report concludes, "but no comprehensive program exists to proactively assist these villages to prevent an impending disaster."
The report also concludes that Congress should change the law to allow 64 rural villages become eligible for federal grants to help with housing and other relocation-related expenses. Currently, because they're not part of an organized local government, they're not eligible for federal housing money.
Also, the GAO report suggests that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers augment a 2009 baseline erosion assessment with a flooding assessment so that decision-makers are better able to prioritize which villages might need to move first.
Mike Black, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, said he agreed with the findings.
"Especially the lead agency, because right now, the whole process is done on a purely voluntary basis," he said. "If an agency doesn't want to be at the table, it doesn't have to be. There's no lead agency and no direct mandate for the important agencies to actually participate in the collaborative work we've been doing."
"If we're really able to respond to climate change on a broader level," he added, "we have to do something different than what we're currently doing."
In recent years, people in remote Alaska communities have seen firsthand the effects of climate change in the form of severe storms, erosion and flooding. Last month, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin asked for a federal disaster declaration after spring breakup floods damaged 40 communities along more than 3,000 miles of rivers.
Alaska's congressional delegation said it would do what it could to assist 12 Native villages that have decided to relocate, as well as press for a lead federal agency to oversee and coordinate their efforts.
"I agree with the GAO that this shortcoming and lack of coordination is an impediment," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement. "I am committed to the process of identifying or creating a lead federal entity, and will work to secure funding to better help Alaskan villages deal with these threats."
The state also bears some financial responsibility, however, said Meredith Kenny, a spokeswoman for Rep. Don Young.
"Rep. Young would be in full support of streamlining a method of getting federal assistance to the villages, but believes the state also has to do their part with matching funds," she said.
Newtok, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, has seen just how sluggish government can be, said Stanley Tom, a tribal administrator. The Yup'ik Eskimo village is the furthest along with plans to relocate 340 residents to higher ground nine miles from their current home on the Ninglick River. But the project, begun in 1994, still could be several years from completion.
The state currently is building a barge landing at the new village site, Tom said. Next up is an emergency evacuation center and roads for the new village. Without the roads, they can't move construction equipment, materials or homes to their new site.
"We have to have roads in order to move houses, and we can't move unless we have roads to move from the barge landing," Tom said. "It's kind of slow, but we're making progress."
Tom said he agrees with the findings of the GAO report. In Newtok, he's found that the state is more nimble than the federal agencies with similar oversight.
"They take forever," Tom said.
However, Tom said he was pleased that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., met last month with Alaska Natives en route to China and said he hopes that will help bring attention to the effects of global warming on U.S. communities.
Sen. Mark Begich said he has spoken to the White House to press for an Alaska adaptation fund to be included in any climate change legislation that comes out of Congress this year. "This report is further proof that Alaska is on the frontline of climate change," Begich said, "and many Alaskans live with the consequences every day."