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Rising seas threaten Alaskan coastal communities
Anchorage Daily News


October 24, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The cost of relocating villages that face extinction in the next decade or so -- sooner if the wrong storm hits the wrong place at the wrong time -- is staggering. Even by Alaska standards.

- Moving Newtok, a Bering Sea coast town of 315 being squished and swamped by two rivers, could cost as much as $130 million. Or $412,000 per person.

- Moving Shishmaref, a strip of sand in the Chukchi Sea that's home to about 600 people, could cost as much as $200 million. Or $330,000 per person.

- Moving Kivalina, a shrinking barrier island in the Chukchi that last month saw most of its 380 residents run for safety from the season's first storm, could cost as much as $125 million. Or $330,000 per person.

Meanwhile, millions more are needed to protect people and facilities threatened by catastrophic erosion until they move.

Where will all the money come from?

"That's the million-dollar question," said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner who is involved in the Newtok relocation.

It's closer to a billion-dollar question, and it's getting a lot of attention at the federal, state and local levels.

The usual sources are being tapped, among them the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Transportation, the Village Safe Water Program and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Even the idea of using some of the Permanent Fund has been floated.

Cox hopes dollars alone don't drive the discussions.

"I hate to put things in economic terms, because these are human beings we're talking about," she said. "These are lifestyles they've led for thousands of years that have been passed on to them by their forefathers. How can you minimize all that (by putting it) in economic terms?"

In years past, Natives would have moved to safer places if nature's wrath threatened their homes. Today, things like school buildings, airstrips, roads and washeterias keep once-nomadic people anchored in place.

The Denali Commission, a state-federal agency created by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to improve Alaska's infrastructure, has $100 million to offer. Given the many needs of the many villages being eaten away by erosion, that's a drop in the roiling Chukchi Sea.

Newtok, Shishmaref, and Kivalina are the canaries in the mine that is global warming, which is eating river banks, thawing permafrost and delaying the annual formation of shore-fast ice that protects coastal towns from fall sea storms.

The question for everyone is how to deal with it financially.

Even unpopular alternatives -- such as relocating Shishmaref residents to Nome -- are expensive. That would cost $93 million, a quarter of which would pay for new homes, plus another $35 million for new roads in Nome to handle the population boom.

The price of relocation is so steep, it would be cheaper to buy everyone in Shishmaref, Newtok and Kivalina a condo in Fairbanks or Anchorage. But if any government officials are thinking that, or questioning the idea of rescuing villages, they're not willing to say it.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said such thinking is untenable. Natives have made their homes on the western edge of Alaska for thousands of years, and their traditional way of life "shouldn't come to an abrupt end," she said.

Stevens said no one has the right to tell people who live in endangered villages they should pack up and move to a larger town and forfeit their communities, cultures and lifestyles.

"It's not up to us," he said. "If you're God, yes. But I'm not ready to play God and tell them what to do."

Landrieu, who saw New Orleans neighborhoods destroyed and Gulf Coast towns all but wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, said it's cheaper to spend money on protection and relocation than it is to rebuild. So far the bill for rebuilding the Gulf Coast is $150 billion, she said.

But there are limits to what taxpayers are willing to take on, she said.

"It's doubtful the relocation of one of these Native villages would come out on the positive side of a cost-benefit analysis," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C. "But you have to look at it overall. Is it the right thing to do? Is it what we should do?

"These communities are at the front line of global warming and we have to be cognizant of two factors. One is, they were here before the bulk of the rest of us were. And also, what we decide to do there is going to set precedents and trends for how we're going to react to the same issues on thousands of miles of coastline in the rest of the country."


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska