Alaskans Flee Village Under Flood Threat
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — More than half the residents of an isolated Arctic village were evacuated as storm surges threatened to flood their slender barrier island Thursday, the latest chapter in their losing battle against the sea.
With no road system within hundreds of miles of Kivalina, about 100 people, mostly seniors and children, boarded small propeller planes to the regional hub city of Kotzebue. More than 100 others embarked on a grueling 70-mile nighttime journey by boat, all-terrain vehicle and bus to shelter at the mountain headquarters of a zinc mine.
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.
Most of the nearly 400 residents of Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo village in northwest Alaska, rely on fishing and hunting.
It was the only inhabited area under the flood warning along the Chukchi Sea, but is one of three villages along Alaska's storm-battered western coast that probably will have to be moved within the next 10 to 15 years because of erosion, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps said in a report last year that it would cost up to $355 million to move Kivalina, Newtok and Shishmaref.
Kivalina, 625 miles northwest of Anchorage and 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle, has lost about 100 feet of coastline in the past three years to waves and storm surges, said tribal administrator Colleen Swan.
A $3 million sea wall built and rebuilt 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."
A storm last year tore away a portion of the wall soon after it was completed, Swan said. On Thursday, nearly two dozen workers were shoring up weakened sections of the sea wall with sacks of sand and piles of gravel, said Vice Mayor Enoch Adams Jr.
Winds were picking up by late Thursday, waves were washing away the beach at an area not protected by the wall, Adams said.
"Our crews are going ahead to meet that challenge," he said.
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 big enough for several people and took 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.
Mine officials said they expected the last of about 120 evacuees to arrive by late Thursday.
Emmanuel Hawley said he spent 26 hours working on the sea wall crew and driving an all-terrain vehicle in an overnight rain shower, shuttling friends and relatives to safety.
Hawley said he and his parents and sisters don't plan on leaving Kivalina.
"I'm not scared of a wave," the 21-year-old said. "I have a job and I'm going to see what's going to happen next."
Swan, 48, said her six children and one grandchild escaped to the mine while she stayed behind to help monitor the storm.
"I think we'll be fine," she said, "but you never know."