Shishmaref residents vote to move their village

Town may relocate seven miles away to avoid ongoing erosion

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Residents of the island village of Shishmaref have voted overwhelmingly to move their community to escape the violent storms that have eroded huge chunks of shoreline.

Residents of the community about 600 miles northwest of Anchorage voted Friday. The unofficial count released by village officials Saturday was 161-20 in favor of moving.

"No one seems surprised by the results," said Percy Nayokpuk, president of Shishmaref Native Corp.

It's not known where the millions of dollars needed for such a move would come from. No one has figured out the price yet, said Tony Weyiouanna, village transportation planner.

The village of about 600 residents has struggled with erosion for decades, and in recent years storms have undercut permafrost, gobbled up shoreline and swallowed roads. Shishmaref is on a sandy barrier island on Alaska's Arctic coast, five miles from the Seward Peninsula mainland.

After an October storm ravaged Shishmaref last year, the town closed off the west end of one street because it is on unstable ground, Nayokpuk said. People in about eight houses must drive on trails or back roads to reach their homes.

Several other towns along Alaska's west, northwest and Arctic coasts also face serious erosion problems.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December released a study of what it would cost to move Kivalina, at the tip of a barrier reef north of Shishmaref. Moving Kivalina's 400 residents to a 100-acre gravel pad on the mainland would cost $102 million, the corps said.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens hoped emergency funds would help the eroding coastal communities, said spokeswoman Melanie Alvord. He has said he thinks global climate change is largely to blame for villages being overtaken by the sea.

"Unfortunately there's no federal program for relocating villages," Alvord said.

In Shishmaref, the Native corporation, village council and city government have formed a relocation coalition. Nayokpuk said residents are leaning toward a barge-accessible spot known as West Nunatak on the mainland about seven miles southwest.

"The main problems are a lack of space and the danger we are facing whenever we have a storm," he said.

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