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Kivalina Relocation Relies on Bureaucracies Adapting to Climate Change ‘Disaster Events’

Climate-change lessons-learned in Kivalina …

Janet Mitchell says she and many others in Kivalina were encouraged last year when President Obama gave a shout-out to her village, and the peril it faces, after a flyover during his visit to Alaska.

“… So on my way here, I flew over the island of Kivalina, which is already receding into the ocean,” Obama said in a Sept. 2 speech in Kotzebue.

Upon his arrival in Kotzebue on Sept. 2, President Obama greets Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule as Kotzebue Mayor Maija Lukin looks on.

Mitchell is Kivalina’s city administrator. She and others have been working for years to get state and federal agencies to help move the village to higher ground, where it won’t be threatened by flooding from waves whipped up during the powerful storms that slam into western Alaska late in the fall.

That’s what residents of Kivalina told Obama in one of the meetings he held with Alaskans during his three-day visit to the state, which he alluded to in the Kotzebue speech: “…The waves sweep across the entire island, at times from one side to the other.”

Credit KNBA
Janet Mitchell, Kivalina city administrator

Mitchell says her Inupiaq forebears wouldn’t have built a village on the exposed site at the end of an 8-mile-long sandy island on the northwest-Alaska coast that’s barely above sea level. But she says the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs did that just over a hundred years ago, because it seemed like a handy place for boats to offload supplies.

“This was the easiest spot to drop the material and build a school,” she said. “And we’ve been here ever since.”

Mitchell says it wasn’t long before the people of Kivalina began trying to move their community. She says state and federal agencies have provided some help, but that it seems they’ve just begun to learn how to respond to this new type of slow-moving disaster.

Credit State of Alaska
Decades of coastal erosion and storm surges have brought the Chukchi Sea to within a few feet of some homes, as shown in this 2010 photo.

“Oh, very much so,” said Joel Niemeyer is the federal co-chair of the Denali Commission, which the president has tasked with overseeing the village-relocation effort.

“The failure mechanism … you could say is a disaster event over a long period time – not over hours, but over years,” Niemeyer said. “And there are no congressional authorities for that.”

Niemeyer says lessons-learned in places like Kivalina should enable those agencies to respond more ably in the years ahead, as more coastal communities face erosion and more powerful storm surges energized by a warming climate.

“What’s happening in Alaska is the start of climate-change effects,” he said, “and this could well be occurring in the Lower 48.”

Niemeyer says he hopes Congress will soon grant agencies additional authority so other communities won’t have to cope with both climate change and bureaucracies that aren’t prepared to respond to it.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.