Shishmaref shores up against storms

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Shishmaref is bracing for the next big Arctic Ocean storm.

Villagers have been piling sandbags and building wire-mesh gabions to protect the tiny coastal community from the harsh elements.

Earlier this month, a powerful storm slammed the barrier island with 12-foot waves. The storm threatened to undercut houses, utility poles, warehouses, fuel tanks and other structures. Ever since, the village has scrambled to build protection that will last until the sea freezes in early December.

Last week the state declared an emergency and offered to provide up to $110,000 in disaster relief for the work. Villagers say they appreciate the money but fear it will do little to solve the perennial threat by storms that have been consuming the sand that holds their homes.

''We may get better sandbagging, but I'm stuck with no heavy equipment'' and no permanent solution, said Karen Sinnok, head of the village's erosion coalition.

The state aid will help, ''but in the big picture of things, none of this is going to protect them in the way that they need to be protected,'' said Mike Bird with the state Division of Emergency Services.

The village of 550 is built on a sandy barrier island on the Chukchi Sea about 600 miles northwest of Anchorage. Residents have struggled with erosion for decades. In recent years, storms have undercut permafrost, eating shoreline and swallowing roads.

With money from the Native corporation Kawerak Inc., and labor by villagers, crews have managed to throw up about 370 feet of sandbags piled inside a wire mesh, village planner Tony Weyiouanna Weyiouanna told the Anchorage Daily News. They hope to build an additional 600 feet during the next few weeks.

A state emergency team visited the village. Last week, Gov. Tony Knowles signed an order authorizing the state's Disaster Relief Fund to pay for at least 500 feet of emergency gabions.

The village has so far spent about $30,000, Bird said, and can keep working until the ground freezes. Based on how previous emergency sea walls held up, this additional work will probably get the village through this storm season.

''It's not going to last against the Perfect Storm' or something huge,'' Bird said.

When a winter storm in 1997 destroyed part of the coastal bluff, the state declared a disaster. Fourteen homes were moved to safer ground, and a sea wall was strengthened. Since then, the village has been struggling to find a permanent answer to a problem threatening its existence, Sinnok said.

Agencies offer technical assistance, but the village has been unable to find the money to move the village.

''I know, eventually we're going to have to move,'' she said. ''As much as we don't want to, we're going to have to go to a new site. We don't have any choice.''

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