FAIRBANKS - U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens says it is likely to cost as much as $1 billion to relocate 10 coastal Alaska villages threatened by erosion and that's more money than he's likely to get from the federal government.
"If the cost to move some of those villages is as high as I think it is, it may well be that we have to find some way to consolidate some of them," he said.
"That kind of money is just not available in a time of war," said Stevens, an Alaska Republican, referring to the war on terrorism.
A combined village, he figures, could have a better school, a better hospital and a better airport than the individual villages could.
But the idea of merging communities probably wouldn't go over well in Shishmaref, said Percy Nayokpuk, president of the local Native corporation.
Shishmaref sits on a sandy barrier island about five miles offshore and about 125 miles north of Nome. Storms off the Chukchi Sea have undercut permafrost and crumbled some roads. Residents in the village of 600 voted last month to move to more protected ground.
Stevens added $1 million to a pending Senate bill to study Shishmaref's options.
The full cost of the move hasn't been calculated. But a recent study of Kivalina, farther north on the Chukchi coast, found it would cost more than $100 million to move that village of 400 to a 100-acre gravel pad.
"I think it's going to be impossible to get the money that was indicated to me is necessary to move those villages, one by one, back from the shoreline and re-establish them in a reasonable period of time," Stevens said. "There are a great number of villages that the predications are will be inundated if this current increase in the level of the sea off Alaska continues."
The mayor of Point Hope, about 100 miles up the coast from Kivalina, thought consolidation didn't sound too bad.
"With the budget crunch, that would be the way to go," said Martin Oktollik. But his community isn't planning on moving. He said residents get flood warnings every fall and are pursuing the idea of building an evacuation center to the east and possibly relocating the airport.
Nayokpuk said several small settlements merged with Shishmaref around 1900 when the government required children to go to school. But, he said, those mergers were more natural because the distances weren't great. Blending Shishmaref and Kivalina would be tough, he said.
"Everybody's kind of unique, especially if you go from region to region, our language, our ways," he said.