Rural Alaska

Rural Alaska villages hope to eliminate barriers to federal funding for addressing climate change threats

While land is rapidly eroding and the coastal lines are shifting, a third of Alaska Native villages are seeing major consequences and very little help.

About 70 Alaska Native villages out of more than 200 face erosion, flooding or thawing permafrost, which can mean a threat to safety, loss of infrastructure and changes to the environment and traditional practices. Federal agencies have been dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars to help villages address the effects of climate change and prepare for future threats, but communities have struggled to access help. With assistance coming from various agencies through different programs, it can be easy to get lost while navigating options, and it’s hard to find the ones that can actually help.

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed federal efforts to help Alaska Native villages affected by climate change and made recommendations for Congress and federal agencies to better assist these communities. Specifically, the office recommended consolidating available help, providing technical assistance to tribes applying for funding and making sure the programs offered are applicable to Alaska Native tribes.

“They seem to have listened and put down all the focus points that were discussed. It’s a start,” said Twyla Thurmond, who is from Shishmaref and is now a tribal liaison for Climigration Network. “I’m seeing really solid recommendations, but there’s always a process and getting something complete. Is it up to Congress to make sure that these programs actually do this? Like, what is the next step? That’s my biggest worry.”

While the recommendations might be useful, some think they don’t go far enough. Griffin Hagle, executive director of the Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority in Northwest Alaska, said that the report “continues to dance around the fact that nothing short of a wartime mobilization is needed to confront the causes and effects of climate change.”

In Newtok, one of the many Alaska communities threatened by a changing climate, eroding land has driven the community to start moving to a new location, Mertarvik. The first part of relocation took years and the process is still incomplete as the village of almost 400 has been navigating available programs with different requirements, deadlines and purposes.

Newtok needs to build about 45 more homes to move everyone to the new location, and the community needs to combine support from several sources to fund the construction. Meanwhile, the 275 residents remaining in Newtok continue to face significant risks from erosion, which is expected to severely threaten the school this fall.

When facing environmental threats, villages often have to contend with immediate damage to infrastructure. But at the same time, they face the challenge of preparing for future threats and increasing resilience to them — for example, by constructing erosion and flood protection berms or relocating to safer ground.

There is no single federal program that can meet all of a village’s needs; a village will likely have to draw on a variety of programs that are fragmented across federal, state and tribal agencies. For example, if a village needs to move homes located too close to an eroding riverbank, the Denali Commission, FEMA, Department of Housing and Urban Development and USDA all administer programs that may be able to help relocate the homes or construct new ones. Other agencies may also need to be involved to install the supporting infrastructure such as water and wastewater systems, roads and power generation.

Communities also often need to combine assistance from several programs to complete a project, in part because the high cost of construction may exceed a single program’s grant award limit.

“Various agencies that provide help don’t talk to each other, and oftentimes don’t talk to tribes, so people just feel lost in the system trying to find the right resource and find the finding that matches,” said Melinda Chase, tribal liaison at Alaska Tribal Resilience Learning Network. “Many tribes may not know how all the services may work together.”

Hagle said the situation in Point Lay exemplifies “the compounding effects of lack of political will to act” on existing housing and climate change crises. In one of their projects, the housing authority is working to demolish a dilapidated former schoolhouse and build three new duplexes.

“Not having a streamlined replicable resource to deal with the asbestos abatement on that old BIA school — which is by no means an uncommon problem in rural Alaska — is one more hurdle in the path,” he said.

[Related: Alaska villages will build new homes and improve water and sewer systems using federal COVID-19 aid]

To improve coordination among federal, state and tribal entities, the Government Accountability Office recommended that Congress establish a coordinating entity that would work with all relevant agencies and make sure federal investments reach Alaska Native tribes effectively.

“Each community that struggles very impactfully — especially the 13 that are in imminent danger — they should already have a seat at the table, and all their information should be consolidated online,” Thurmond said. “There should be an interagency tool online that all the information goes to.”

In rural Alaska, the challenge in applying for a grant sometimes starts with printing out the necessary documents or accessing the internet, which is often patchy and expensive, Thurmond said. At some point, she almost missed an application deadline because the weather was bad and the internet connection wasn’t reliable.

“It takes a lot of the funding just to be able to access the internet. And a lot of times it doesn’t work when there’s snow out, or blizzard, or it’s raining too hard,” she said. “We have to wait for sunny days to be able to contact agencies and participate in anything Zoom related. That’s a big frustration.”

The Government Accountability Office recommended that federal agencies providing villages with technical assistance help tribes select the programs and apply for them.

Reducing obstacles for tribes seeking help to address climate change also involves adjusting the existing programs, according to the report. Of the more than 30 relevant federal programs, the office reviewed 20 and found that each had at least one characteristic that could pose an obstacle to villages trying to obtain assistance.

For example, some programs — such as those provided by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — require local governments to share costs, which can range from 5% to 50% of a project’s total cost. This is a significant obstacle for Native villages with subsistence economies, preventing villages from applying for that help, officials from Corps reported.

Thurmond agreed that the cost-share requirement is something that has always been an obstacle for the community of Shishmaref.

“The obstacle was finding that magnitude of funding for cost-share when our communities are economically very poor,” she said. “We don’t have $100,000, let alone $300,000 or whatever it takes to get these projects up and rolling.”

Another obstacle tribes meet when applying for help is that some programs may be available only under certain circumstances, such as after a natural disaster or an imminent threat to community infrastructure.

“It’s slow, expensive, hard to access, often available only after a disaster when people are in crisis now and are trying to survive,” Thurmond said.

Most of the agencies — the Commerce Department, Defense Department, Homeland Security, Interior Department and Denali Commission — supported the recommendations and agreed to implement them. The sixth agency, HUD, agreed with the intent of the recommendation but stated that it was vaguely worded.

Thurmond also said the recommendations the Government Accountability Office provided sounded vague, but constructive overall. Her biggest concern was whether they would actually get implemented by the agencies.

“There were times where we’ve provided similar recommendations. We keep typing them out and keep speaking out,” she said. “This has gone on for decades. It’s just hard to imagine execution and making sure that these problems are adhered to the system.”

Hagle said that more decisive and substantial changes are needed to help villages respond to the imminent dangers.

“I always think of the distant early warning line,” he said. “The U.S. government moved heaven and earth to build those in the 1950s to counter the Soviet threat, but we have nothing approaching that level of coordinated focus on the climate emergency.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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