ANCHORAGE — Tony Weyiouanna remembers a time when people played beach baseball in his village on Alaska’s storm-battered western coast. Now, there’s barely enough room for hopscotch on Shishmaref’s eroding waterfront.
Erosion in the village and other coastal Alaska communities is an escalating problem blamed on climate change that has affected storm patterns in the region. The impact on their environment was the message carried by Weyiouanna and four other residents from the Inupiat Eskimo community who traveled to the nation’s capital, armed with stories and a clump of eroding sod.
“We have barely any beach line anymore,” Weyiouanna said in a phone interview Thursday from Washington. “We can’t even walk the beach anymore to do clamming like we used to.”
The small contingent met with Alaska’s congressional delegation and officials from federal agencies to talk about the effects of erosion on the community of 600. Weyiouanna said two houses have toppled over as the ground is eaten away and the shoreline comes ever closer to other homes. The sample of sod accompanying them on the trip was taken from the airport, near a road leading to the community landfill. The road was partially washed out by a storm last fall, and residents had to wait until the winter freeze to use it again.
In response to the visit, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent a letter Thursday to President Barack Obama, telling him she learned Shishmaref has no federal funding available to deal with erosion. Murkowski noted a December announcement that Vietnam will receive $17 million from the U.S. for erosion-mitigation efforts.
“In short, I ask that you put America first, especially the Alaskans who deal with this reality on a daily basis,” she wrote. “If the United States is making commitments to foreign nations, it cannot forget its own citizens.”
Shishmaref, 600 miles northwest of Anchorage, is built on a narrow island just north of the Bering Strait. It has been identified as one of the state’s most eroded communities and among those that expect to ultimately require relocation. Old estimates run as high as $200 million to start from scratch with new infrastructure — and about half that amount to move residents to the coastal towns of Nome or Kotzebue. Relocating to another community, however, is unacceptable for many who believe that would amount to cultural death.
Weyiouanna said residents would like to get assistance for short- and long-term measures, including possible relocation. More immediately, Shishmaref would like to see completion of a 3,000-foot seawall that was put in place through U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. Only half that length of the wall was built before funding dried up, Weyiouanna said.
The Department of Interior is among the agencies visited by residents this week. Weyiouanna said agency representatives expressed interest in possibly dealing with Shishmaref as a model village for other U.S. communities facing similar problems. He said his group received no firm commitments on funding during this week’s visit.
Nedra Darling, an Indian affairs spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said officials are in the early stages of working with the community.