Kivalina resting on hope, faith
Standing on the beach near the landfill outside the village of Kivalina last week, Janet Mitchell saw the waves encroaching up onto land. It was the first big storm of the season and Mitchell knew that it would only get worse overnight.
She turned toward the horizon and prayed. Prayed for her town to be protected from the storm.
"I knew if the snow didn't fall, we'd have trouble with erosion by the airport and landfill ... so I said a little prayer," said Mitchell, the city administrator.
She was out doing her usual rounds around the community before heading home when she noticed the water and began to pray.
"When I said 'amen,' I felt my face being hit with pellets," she recalled. "At first, I thought it was water splashing on my face from the waves but looking closer, I saw that it was snow pellets."
By daylight, there were snow berms built up in all the right spots, offering protection from the storm surges, she said.
This year, Kivalina residents have taken more action to help protect the disappearing village from coastal erosion and flooding. In early October, the community received some help taking apart 14 used 10,000-gallon fuel tanks and using the halves as large, heavy metal shields to protect where the erosion is the worst. The shields were stacked on top of sandbags already lining the coast.
It all helps, said tribal leader Millie Hawley, but they still rely on their faith to get them through.
"On a scale of one to 10, I'd said it's a 10," said Hawley on the importance of faith in God in the community. "That's the only way we live on this island. It's the only way we know that we're safe. Everyone believes. Not everyone practices. But everyone believes."
With the warm fall that plagued the state, open water on the Chukchi Sea has left Kivalina even more vulnerable. In fact, for years now the village has been exposed thanks to open water lingering later and later. And the storms are coming later each year right along with it, pushing huge waves into beaches.
But now with colder temperatures settling in, ice ridges are forming and offering some protection. Before that, boulders on the town's rock-wall barrier had begun sloughing off into the sea and sinking.
The rock revetment, built in 2009, has so far done a good job at keeping the water at bay and giving residents piece of mind, Mitchell said.
The land around the local dumpsite has eroded so much that the town needs to move it again. It's an environmental hazard, said Mitchell.
"But no matter what we do on the beach side or the lagoon side, the island in that area is just not wide enough for complete protection. The next best thing is to relocate it yet again," she said.
It's an ongoing concern, added Hawley. The landfill is owned by the city and maintained by the tribe in part through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Currently, however, the priority is moving forward with the evacuation and access road. The route would wind over the tundra seven miles up the Kivalina River to Kisimigiuqtuq.
The community held a meeting Tuesday to discuss a study done in August and got an update from WHPacific, the NANA-owned architecture and engineering firm hired to take on the road project.
Kisimigiuqtuq is also the proposed site of the new school. The current school, built in the '70s, is too small and in a state of disrepair. Mitchell said if the school were built in Kisimigiuqtuq, perhaps the community would follow. But first, the road needs to get constructed.
"Right now, we don't have a place to go if we get washed over," Hawley said. "We're completely surrounded."
The ongoing village relocation discussion can only seriously start once the evacuation road is in, she added.
In the spring, Gov. Sean Parnell submitted a $2.5 million capital project amendment toward the road. The estimated cost to move the entire village is estimated at around $400 million.
Kivalina has been evacuated twice, Hawley said. And both times, residents were ushered out in early fall when the weather was warm.
"But today it's freezing cold and when we get these ocean surges and it's really blistering weather, it's an uneasy feeling," Hawley said. "But we do have a lot of faith. We have to. There's nowhere else to go."
For now, until a road is built and the village moved, residents will continue to look skyward each day — for a couple of different reasons.
"In times like this, with climate changes wreaking havoc on the beach and river shorelines of rural communities, as evidenced by news coverage in many villages, we need to cling to something for peace of mind," Mitchell said.