ANCHORAGE - Scores of Alaska Native villages are increasingly threatened by erosion, and governments must respond with new strategies as other communities around the nation face similar dilemmas from climate change, U.S. senators said Thursday.
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Affected individuals also must play a larger role in shaping their fates, senators said at a field hearing of the Senate Disaster Recovery Subcommittee.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said a tour of Shishmaref, one of Alaska's most eroded communities, this week opened her eyes to the urgency of Alaska's vulnerability, which she likened to Hurricane Katrina in her region.
"Not to frighten you, but we lost 2,000 people who drowned in that storm. Some of them drowned in their own attics, in their homes. We had children drown in the arms of their parents, senior citizens that couldn't swim and drowned in their living rooms," Landrieu said. "I'd just hate to see that happen in communities like here."
State and federal officials and leaders from Shishmaref and three other severely eroded villages testified about the challenges of dealing with worsening floods, melting permafrost and shorter periods of the shorefast ice that historically protected the communities from powerful storms.
A glaring flaw, officials and villagers said, is that no agency has taken a lead role in a slew of erosion projects involving overlapping layers of government. And there's just not enough money to go around, they said.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was stunned to hear that the regional office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not requested emergency funding for communities in the most critical circumstances. He reminded the corps of provisions he added to a 2005 appropriations bill passed by Congress that authorizes the secretary of the Army to carry out emergency projects for coastal erosion, storm damage prevention and relocation efforts - at federal expense.
"It doesn't seem the corps was impressed by that authorization at all," Stevens told Brig. Gen. John Peabody.
Peabody, commander of the corps' Pacific Ocean Division, said he knew of no request from his office to fund Alaska projects under the emergency provision.
"That's sort of mind boggling to say the least," Stevens said.
Erosion and flooding affect 184 - or 86 percent - of 213 Alaska native villages to some degree, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A report by the corps last year gave Shishmaref, Kivalina and Newtok a projected lifespan of 10- to 15-years at their current locations along Alaska's storm-lashed coast.
Only Newtok has begun to move to a site nine miles to the south, but village administrator Stanley Tom said lack of funding is a critical problem in the relocation effort. Villagers, however, are doing as much as they can, driven by the aggressive erosion that's already gobbled up the old barge landing and eaten into the Newtok River, turning it into a slough. Only a few hundred feet of swampy tundra remain between the community and another river. At the same time Newtok's permafrost foundation is melting and sinking.
"This is a really low land," Tom said.
A sea wall built last year with state and federal funds to protect Kivalina - and later repaired - is not doing its job, said tribal administrator Colleen Swan. In fact, a minor sea storm damaged the wall on the day village festivities were scheduled to celebrate completion of the project.
Further work made it past the design phase, but stopped there, Swan said.
"That project design was abandoned due to an early fall sea storm season and lack of funding," she said.
Despite his earlier comments on emergency funding, Stevens said it would be "next to impossible" to obtain the millions of dollars needed to immediately meet all the needs of villages. More than ever, it's crucial to identify priorities.
"The question is how do we stage this money . . . and start putting it where it's absolutely necessary," Stevens said. "It does seem to me we're going to have to have a statewide concept of evaluating the problem and trying to allocate resources for the state and federal government to the areas that need it the most."
Stevens said would set another meeting in Anchorage next month to further explore the problem.