Alakanuk families move to avoid Yukon erosion

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2000

BETHEL (AP) -- Sophie James and her family are hoping for an early snowfall. They need plenty of snow to move their home in Alakanuk across the street, away from the eroding bank of the Yukon River.

''They've already put a big wooden sled under our house and cut off the electricity,'' said James, 67, who lives with her husband, John, and her 25-year old daughter, Mary.

''We've been flooded lots of times. We are happy to move,'' said Sophie James, who added that the family will only pack away glass objects, moving everything else as is.

Alakanuk is about 500 miles northwest of Anchorage. James's house and more than a dozen other houses near the mouth of the Yukon River are threatened by erosion.

Nine families already have been relocated in the past two years, pulled by tractors to higher ground. The Catholic Church and the police department had to be moved, too.

''The erosion problem started 10 years ago with the big spring flood in 1989,'' said Josie Stern, Alakanuk city administrator, who coordinates the house moving project. ''The ice pushed straight forward to our houses, knocking down the foundations. Our neighbor's and mine fell and flooded.''

Stern's house was the first to be moved. Every year during breakup, she and other flood victims had to get up early in the morning to check the water level and ice coming in.

They had to protect their homes by leaning out their windows and pushing away floating icebergs with sticks.

''Chunks of ice always bound behind our house in spring,'' Sophie James said. ''Once, a big one bumped our house. We got shaken and were scared.''

The city of Alakanuk is hiring two local laborers who will help move James' home and at least five more this winter. Each relocation takes one to two weeks.

The moving project is funded through matching state grants. The average cost of a move is about $6,000.

''We only have $31,000 remaining. That's not enough for all the 13 houses left to move,'' Stern said. She has requested additional funding for next year.

The project was put in place after the erosion problem jeopardized the village's $12.6 million water and sewer project.

An erosion and land use plan was completed with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, which projected that up to 25 structures might be swallowed by the river in the next 30 years.

The report suggested relocating all endangered houses as the most cost-effective option.

In 1998, 83 Alakanuk homes, the school and teachers' housing were connected to a new water-sewer pipe system. But houses on the crumbling riverfront are unserved by the new pipes and must still use honeybuckets. They will be hooked up once they have moved.

''The village has been given $700,000 for traditional erosion control in the 1990s, but the river eroded all that material away,'' said Christy Miller, floodplain manager at the Department for Community and Regional Affairs. ''They have done the right thing by gradually moving the village back.''

Miller, who coordinates the National Flood Insurance Program in Alaska, praised the village for making good use of the limited funds and planning for the future.

''Erosion is a natural process that affects many Alaska communities. Depending on where we build our houses, it can be aggravated,'' she said. ''In the 1980s, we had millions of dollars of erosion projects in the state, but we no longer have money available for huge investments, like the seawall in Bethel.''

Miller said erosion has been a continuing problem throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Some communities are trying to protect their land with structural erosion control. Emmonak has received a grant to put in boulders along the Yukon River bank. Aniak, in the middle Kuskokwim River area, is reinforcing its dike.

For other communities, however, relocation seems to be the better option.

''Napakiak has moved parts of the village and Newtok wants to relocate the entire community,'' Miller said.

Stern likes her new location because the ground is higher and drier.

''I don't have to worry about breakup here. Plus, I no longer have to haul water and dump honeybuckets,'' she said.

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