Shishmaref residents vote to move village

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Residents of the island village of Shishmaref have voted overwhelmingly to relocate their community to escape the violent storms that have eroded huge chunks of shoreline.

Residents voted Friday. The unofficial count released by village officials Saturday was 161-20 in favor of moving. The tally will not be certified until Monday, but the outcome is clear.

''No one seems surprised by the results,'' said Percy Nayokpuk, president of Shishmaref Native Corp.

But it's not known where the millions of dollars needed for such a move would come from. No one has figured out the price yet, said Tony Weyiouanna, village transportation planner.

The village of about 600 residents has struggled with erosion for decades, and in recent years storms have undercut permafrost, gobbled up shoreline and swallowed roads.

Shishmaref is on a sandy barrier island on Alaska's Arctic coast, five miles from the Seward Peninsula mainland and about 600 miles northwest of Anchorage.

After an October storm ravaged Shishmaref last year, the town closed off the west end of Front Street because it is on unstable ground, Nayokpuk said. People in about eight houses must drive on trails or back roads instead to reach their homes.

Several other towns along Alaska's west, northwest and Arctic coasts also face serious erosion problems.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December released a study of what it would take to move Kivalina, at the tip of a barrier reef north of Shishmaref. Moving Kivalina's 400 residents to a 100-acre gravel pad on the mainland would cost $102 million, the corps said.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens is sympathetic and had hoped that emergency funds would be able to help the eroding coastal communities, said spokeswoman Melanie Alvord. He has said that he thinks global climate change is largely to blame for villages like Shishmaref being overtaken by the sea.

''Unfortunately there's no federal program for relocating villages,'' Alvord said.

In Shishmaref, the Native corporation, village council and city government have formed a relocation coalition.

Site studies still must be done for a new village, but Nayokpuk said residents are leaning toward choosing a barge-accessible spot known as West Nunatak on the mainland about seven miles southwest.

In addition to erosion, the island village has problems with securing fresh water and space to build, Nayokpuk said. Shishmaref has a young population -- the median age is about 20 -- and there will be a need for more housing.

''The main problems are a lack of space and the danger we are facing whenever we have a storm,'' Nayokpuk said.

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