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Kivalina leaders lobby for emergency road funds in DC

  • Author: Shady Oliver
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 30, 2016

Kivalina has weathered its share of storms. Over the past several years, the village has undergone several emergency evacuations when wind, rain and storm surges battered the barrier island.

Recently, a delegation from the Northwest Arctic and the village traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funds and support to build an emergency access road. The route would come with a multimillion-dollar price tag and has not received much financial support to date. Right now, the only way on or off the island is by boat or airplane.

"We really need that evacuation road," said City Council Administrator Janet Mitchell. "We have no way of getting off the island in the event of a major storm. Planes won't be able to come in. We won't be able to go anywhere because in fall-time, much less spring, traveling conditions are very bad. We would be stuck."

Shorter cold seasons with reduced sea ice have meant the full brunt of fall storm surges now cut away at the village's coastline rather than the protective ice that used to be in place. Flooding and erosion are common.

One delegate, Alice Adams, is a village elder. During meetings with federal and state officials, she noted that her husband was afraid last year during one particularly severe storm.

"When an elder becomes afraid, it is time to worry," said Mitchell. "The elders have lived life. They knew the weather back then. They knew what to expect. They knew what would happen just by looking at the clouds or the wind. It's changing so fast. It's new to them. So, it's pretty hard to read what's coming up anymore based on the wind or the weather patterns."

For years now, the village has discussed the need to move its residents to safer ground. The Denali Commission has been tasked with evaluating Kivalina's and other communities' options along those lines. But, until that happens, village leaders are searching for ways to ensure the safety of the residents.

During this particular trip, delegates met with representatives of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Trust Services, Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, said Mitchell.

"For me, in terms of the Kivalina City Council, I spoke mostly of what had been happening to the island and how it's affecting the people, the erosion, what the changing climate is doing and how it's affecting our hunting abilities, especially in whaling time," she said.

The rest of the group spoke to their particular interests, she explained. Mayor Austin Swan and other members of the delegation could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Mitchell said that while she doesn't necessarily see funding on the horizon, she came away from the meetings with a better understanding of how state and federal funding structures work, which she hopes will help with navigating the bureaucratic webs in the future.

More than anything, though, she hopes the message from the residents of Kivalina will be heard and remembered.

"I can only hope that we were able to touch the heartstrings of the people we met with," she said. "I can only hope what we had to say to all the people we met with will be able to help to find funding for the road, which we really need."