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Walker visits imperiled village of Kivalina in advance of Obama's Alaska visit

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 22, 2015

KIVALINA -- Alaska Gov. Bill Walker heard from anxious residents in this eroding village on Thursday, two weeks before an expected presidential trip to Northwest Alaska as Barack Obama highlights climate change in the Arctic.

No one could say whether the president will actually drop in on Kivalina, 640 miles northwest of Anchorage on the Chukchi Sea coast, though a presidential advance team visited the village earlier this month.

Some residents have heard the gravel airstrip is too tiny for the aircraft needed to support such a high-level visit, and that Obama will remain in the Northwest hub city of Kotzebue.

"I think his advance team decided no (on Kivalina)," said Zoe Theoharis, the Kivalina school principal.

"He wanted to come here but it's not possible," she said, saying she'd heard that news from regional school district officials.

The governor said he doesn't know Obama's plans. He told residents he'd share their message with the president when he arrives in Alaska at the end of this month.

Walker and three other administration officials flew to this Inupiat village of 400 so the governor could become "conversant" with its efforts to relocate to a new site on the mainland. A reporter also came along in the governor's Beechcraft King Air and on a state-charted plane after the Alaska Dispatch News asked to accompany the group.

Where to move?

Clinging to a slender barrier island, residents say surging waves during big storms have wiped away half the land in the past six decades. At a time when the Arctic is getting increased attention, many have pointed to Kivalina as an example of the immediate effects of climate change.

Two news crews were in the village this week, including one from the BBC, and in February, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and state lawmakers came to hear villagers' concerns.

As for Walker, he said he wanted to learn firsthand about the challenges facing Kivalina.

"I don't come with a solution or a checkbook," he told about 50 residents attending a joint city and tribal council meeting. "I come to listen so we can find a solution."

Villagers said it was the first time a governor arrived to discuss climate change -- Sarah Palin came in 2008, but only to deliver gifts as part of Operation Santa Claus, run by the Alaska National Guard.

Walker's visit was brief. Sagging clouds delayed the flight and Walker had to return to Anchorage for a 38th anniversary dinner with his wife, Donna.

But it was long enough for the village to express deep uncertainty over the best relocation site.

Should villagers move to Kisimagiuqtuq, 7 miles northeast, on a hill where voters in 2011 decided to place a new school? Many say the site is too far away, and the soil conditions in the area won't support an entire village.

Others prefer Kiniktuuraq, 1 mile southeast, where the village voted to move 15 years ago. The Army Corps said in 2006, however, that storm surges and ice overrides would threaten homes and buildings there, and the soil is too icy for building.

One thing is certain: Residents are ready to move.

With no escape from the surging ocean and with coastal sea ice melting earlier and freezing later each year, offering less protection from waves, villagers fear the next big storm could wipe away houses that are a stone's toss from the coast.

"We need to relocate our community!" shouted Joseph Swan Sr., 80. "We don't have the money to do it. The state turned us down."

No running water

In a slim capital budget this year, the Legislature approved $43 million to build the new school, the result of a 2011 settlement for a suit that claimed unequal state funding shortchanged rural schools.

But there's currently not enough money for a bridge and a road to the school that would double as an evacuation route, facilities that would cost tens of millions of dollars. With the state facing huge deficits because of low oil prices, the Republican-led Legislature removed $2.5 million from the governor's budget for the road this year. A previous allocation of $2.5 million, however, is helping pay for early studies of the bridge and route.

"Building a school in a location without a way to get there doesn't solve the problem," Walker said.

The U.S. Army Corps estimated in 2009 that relocating Kivalina with minimal facilities including housing, water and sanitation would cost $123 million. The cost has surely grown.

The village's relocation efforts date back decades, with the village short on space long before climate change attracted international attention, said Stanley Hawley, tribal administrator.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school at the site early last century because it was a convenient place to offload materials, he said. Families living at multiple locations, including the mainland, moved to be near the school because the federal government made attendance mandatory.

With summer and fall storms increasingly tearing away the coast – a notable one in 2004 removed 40 feet of shoreline – villagers said space has run out for new housing and a badly needed landfill.

Meanwhile, Kivalina still lacks running water and sewer and the 40-year-old McQueen School where the meeting was held – with tables set up at midcourt in the gymnasium -- is 200 percent over capacity.

Twenty people are crowded into one three-bedroom house in the village, with an elderly woman's grandchildren and great-grandchildren sleeping on floor mats all the way to the front door, said Lucy Adams, an elder in a pink kuspuk.

"This is how we live in our village," she said.

Stuck on funding

Colleen Swan, a longtime relocation leader in the village, said Kivalina will likely have to get private funding for the move because federal support doesn't seem available.

After listening for roughly an hour, Walker said he understood the community's plight. The 1964 earthquake severely damaged his hometown of Valdez when he was 12, forcing a move to a new site 5 miles away.

"I understand the emotions that go with trying to move," Walker said.

That relocation combined federal, state and local agencies, though the federal government, largely through the Office of Emergency Planning, paid for basic utilities and new facilities after deciding to "pour many millions of dollars" into the project, according to a 1970 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Homeowners had to pay for part of the cost of the new homes, delaying the transition because some balked at moving, the report said.

Walker urged Kivalina to decide on a plan, a starting point so the state could help. But with state money tight, he offered no financial support.

He said the state is working with the federal government on opportunities. His administration submitted language that's now part of a bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski to share a slice of offshore revenues not only with Alaska, but with tribal governments, he said.

A lack of money in the past has brought past relocation efforts to a standstill in Kivalina, said Becky Norton, a tribal council member.

"We always get stuck with the word funding," said Norton, "I ask, 'Is funding going to replace my children?' We've been here too long. We want to move."

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