As sea level rises, an Alaska village faces an existential dilemma

The Chukchi Sea’s unrelenting waves were slowly ripping away the land and homes of the 600 or so residents of this Alaska Native village on a sinking barrier island. U.S. government reports determined that the community was “imminently threatened” with inundation and needed “immediate action” to move to safer ground on the mainland. Villagers voted 161-20 to relocate off the island. Shishmaref, the media proclaimed, would be the United States’ first climate refugees.

That was in 2002.

More than a decade later, the U.S. government has yet to come up with a new location. Shishmaref has stayed put, protected temporarily by a $19 million rock revetment that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished in 2009.

“You almost have to be half the way dead to get help,” said Clifford Weyiouanna, former chair of a relocation coalition.

If Alaska is a test, the U.S. is failing it. The nation lacks any designated agency to help communities relocate even if they are literally falling into the water. Shishmaref is one of three Alaska Native communities on an emergency relocation list put out by the Army Corps and the U.S. General Accounting Office, but none have been able to move.

David Williams, Army Corps project manager for Shishmaref, said the community can’t afford the local share of moving costs nor agree on where to relocate.

Alternative sites selected by federal, state and tribal officials rest on thawing permafrost. The land would slump and sink into a muddy mess unless there was sand or gravel added at great expense to stabilize it. Many residents feel safer where they are, behind the row of rocks the agency installed as a stopgap measure.

“I told them once we build the sea wall, everybody’s going to get comfortable and say we don’t need to relocate anymore,” said Tony Weyiouanna, Clifford’s cousin and president of the Shishmaref Native Corp. “But they don’t see the other problems. The sea level’s rising. It’s going to happen eventually.”

Ironically, the Iñupiats were forced to consolidate on the barrier island about 90 years ago because of federal rules requiring a centralized school. Alaska Natives spread along 100 miles of shoreline were gathered together on a barrier island.

Life here has never been easy. The Iñupiat rely on a subsistence economy, eking out a living on hunting, fishing, berry-picking and food stamps. Seal carcasses litter the town. Most homes have no running water.

The island, just a quarter-mile wide, has lost hundreds of feet of unprotected shore since the 1960s, including another 25 feet or so last year. Water creeps ever closer to the airstrip, the town’s only connection to the outside world. “We don’t have a plan if the airport were washed out,” former Mayor Stanley Tocktoo said in January at a congressional hearing on climate change.

Voting to relocate, without actually relocating, has made things only worse. Water, sewer and health systems have deteriorated; no one is willing to invest in a town that is always talking about relocating.

“The decision to move,” Tocktoo said, “has been very costly for us.”

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