Storm again batters eroding Shishmaref

Posted: Tuesday, October 09, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Gale force winds and driving rain thrashed Shishmaref for more than 12 hours, tearing away at the thin barrier island in the Chukchi Sea and forcing at least one family from their home.

Three other homes on the island of 562 residents were threatened, as well as the village dump, a warehouse filled with dry goods and several utility poles, Mayor Daniel Iyatunguk said Monday.

The weather turned for the worse early Sunday when an intense but compact low pressure system formed over Kotzebue about 100 miles to the northeast.

Shishmaref was battered by wind gusts of up to 45 mph and 12-14 foot waves, according to the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. Tides were 2 feet above normal.

''It was very cold and strong winds spraying salt water ... washed out quite a bit of the bluff on the northwest side of the village,'' Iyatunguk said. ''The ground has cracked because the wind and waves have gone under the land.''

A family with two children was forced to move to another home farther inland because large cracks formed under their home. A dozen people living in three other homes may have to relocate.

While skies had partly cleared and winds had lessened to about 14 mph Monday, the chances of Shishmaref experiencing more bad weather at some point in the near future are pretty good. The worst storms historically hit in October, the mayor said.

The barrier island 125 miles north of Nome has been eroding for decades. It has relied on gabions, a system of sand bags and baskets to protect the bluff. A winter storm in 1997 swamped part of the island, forcing residents to move 14 homes.

Sunday's storm increased the chance that more will need to be relocated.

''A couple of the houses are in danger of falling into the ocean,'' said city clerk Kym Stevenson. ''It has been going on for years and years.''

The storm undermined one of the gabions built about 15 years ago, said Julie Salmon, director of transportation for Kawerak, Inc., the regional Native nonprofit in Nome.

She said the village should be declared a disaster so it can quickly get state and federal money for repairs.

''Every time a wave comes in, it leaves with a scoop of sand,'' Salmon said. ''If there is a disaster and we can't protect them, what will happen to these 500 to 600 people there?''

Iyatunguk said the village was in the process of requesting emergency money.

In the meantime, the Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a feasibility study to find suitable sites to which the village can be relocated. Salmon said the study could take years.

Residents have rejected being relocated to Nome or Kotzebue, in part because those cities allow alcohol and the village is dry. They want instead to stay closer to their tribal lands.

The corps is looking at two sites, one about 5 miles away and the other about 18 miles away. The corps will have to determine if the sites are prone to flooding, are suitable for septic systems, and any other environmental or archaeological concerns, Salmon said.

Iyatunguk said whatever decision is made it's important for Shishmaref residents to be able to continue to lead a traditional Eskimo lifestyle.

''We are sometimes the forgotten people,'' he said. ''We would like to survive. We are living out here on little sand beaches and being threatened by storms... If the wind and wave get bad enough, that's where we'll be, in the water in our boats.''

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