KOTZEBUE, Alaska — While President Obama’s snapshots on Instagram generated plenty of buzz during his trip to Alaska this week, it’s the picture from Air Force One he didn’t take that says the most about what’s at stake in the Arctic.
This Reuters photo — taken as Air Force One made its way north to Kotzebue on Wednesday — captures the true vulnerability of Kivalina, the 400-person town that has suffered massive coastal erosion in recent years. It is an eight-mile gravel spit sitting between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon, and it is slowly washing away.
Obama made a big deal about Kivalina while he was here: He mentioned during his speech what it was like to view it from the plane, and the president of Kivalina’s tribal council government, Millie Hawley, introduced the president onstage.
“It’s an honor to welcome you to our homeland,” she said Wednesday evening, before issuing a stern warning. “As it stands now, my current home may not exist 10 years from now.”
Speaking to the more than 1,000 people who flocked to hear him speak in Kotzebue, the president emphasized that he had spent time during his visit talking “with folks whose villages are literally in danger of slipping away.”
“And so on my way here, I flew over the island of Kivalina, which is already receding into the ocean. That’s what Millie was talking about,” he said. “Waves sweep across the entire island at times, from one side clear across the other. And for many of those Alaskans, it’s no longer a question of if they’re going to relocate, but when.”
But the price tag of this relocation is huge, and it’s unclear what the federal government is willing to pay for. It pledged another $2 million Wednesday to help remote Alaskan villages hard-hit by climate change, but it will cost at least $100 million to move Kivalina. Even constructing an evacuation road to higher ground will cost $15 million, and maybe more than twice that if a causeway needs to be built as part of the project.
A few hours before the president spoke, Hawley said she was “very frustrated” that federal officials had not done more to help her people. Journalists from across the globe have covered Kivalina’s predicament, she said, but it is only now that residents are getting attention from the highest office holder in the land.
Even if the money were to come through for Kivalina, it is unclear exactly where it would move. The town approved a new site in 1992 that the Army Corps of Engineers rejected in 2006 because it sits in a 100-year flood plain. The state has provided money to put Kivalina’s school on higher ground seven miles inland, but the community has not decided if it wants to move there altogether and is instead pressing for the evacuation road leading to the site.
“It’s about life safety, and food security,” she explained, adding that she remains worried that one more intense storm could result in deaths if they don’t have a way off the island. “It’s one thing to lose homes, but if you lose a life, that’s a failure of the federal and state government.”
And Kivalina is not alone — several other communities in the Northwest Arctic are also threatened by flooding and erosion.
Diane Ramoth, vice chair of the Selawik tribal government council, said she expects federal and state authorities to come up with a long-term plan, soon.
“This is a very, very dire situation that we’re in if our United States government is going to allow our communities to no longer exist,” Ramoth said.
Reuters, it should be noted, was not the only one to notice Kivalina’s predicament from the air. The Associated Press published an image as well, and by Thursday afternoon, the president had posted his own version of it on the White House Instagram account.
“There aren’t many other places in America that have to deal with questions of relocation right now,” the president wrote. “But there will be. What’s happening here is America’s wake-up call.”
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