Residents of Kivalina flee town as storm nears

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007

ANCHORAGE - More than 200 residents have fled the coastal village of Kivalina as seasonal storm surges threaten to flood its slender barrier island in northwest Alaska, officials said Thursday.

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With no road system for hundreds of miles, about 100 people, mostly seniors and children, boarded small propeller planes to the regional hub city of Kotzebue. The rest embarked on a grueling 70-mile nighttime journey by boat, all-terrain vehicle and bus to shelter at the mountain headquarters of the Red Dog zinc mine.

While no severe flooding has occurred, the National Weather Service predicted storm surges Thursday afternoon as the tide rises and winds strengthen to 25-40 mph, said John Dragomir, a meteorologist in Fairbanks. A flood warning is in effect through Friday morning, he said.

The decision for the optional evacuation late Wednesday came after the National Weather Service issued the flood warning for 100 miles of largely uninhabited coastline along the Chukchi Sea, according to Suzy Erlich, spokeswoman for Northwest Arctic Borough.

Due to shoreline erosion, Kivalina and two other villages, Newtok and Shishmaref, face the shortest life spans at their present locations along Alaska's storm-battered western coast. In a report released last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the three villages likely would have to move within 10- to 15-years at a total cost of up to $355 million.

The Inupiat Eskimo village of more than 300 people has lost about 100 feet of coastline in the past three years to waves and storm surges, said tribal administrator Colleen Swan. Kivalina is 625 miles northwest of Anchorage and 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

A $3 million sea wall built several years ago to protect Kivalina's roughly 600-foot wide island is not keeping the water at bay, Swan and other villager leaders said.

"The people have lost their peace of mind," Swan said. "Since the village started eroding, we have lost a lot of land and people have become fearful of the fall storms."

The mass exodus began Wednesday night. Those who didn't fly to Kotzebue boarded small boats for the precarious channel crossing to the Alaska mainland. Once there, they loaded onto all-terrain vehicles for a bumpy nighttime ride across 17 miles of gravel beach to the port of the Red Dog Mine. A bus shuttled them another 52 miles into the mountains to a gymnasium at the mine's headquarters.

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