Shismaref residents talk about coastal erosion in D.C.


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This 2005 above photo provided by Tony Weyiouanna Sr. shows a building over a beach in Shishmaref.

AP Photo/Courtesy/Tony Weyiouanna Sr.

Shismaref, a village of about 588 people north of the Bering Strait on the Chukchi Sea coast, is literally washing away.

The community has made the news previously for the issue —homes teeter on a bluff, the road between the town and the landfill has washed out and the runway is at risk of erosion. Work has been done to protect parts of the beach and road system, but that has mostly stopped.

A group of residents visited Washington, D.C., Jan. 13 to 17 to talk about how erosion is affecting their community, and their need for help relocating.

“Our community decided to step back from the relocation efforts in order to pave the way for other Alaska communities to move forward on their relocation projects, but are ready once again to start asking for assistance since we still need a plan developed in order to come up with the best possible plan for our community, ‘To relocate or stay in place?’,” wrote Tony Weyiouanna, president of the Shismaref Native Corp. board and one of the individuals who visited D.C., in an email after returning to Alaska.

The five-member delegation from Shismaref met with Alaska’s congressional delegation, the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, the Department of the Interior, and climate change advisors to President Barack Obama.

“I felt our delegation from Shishmaref was received very well by everyone we met,” Weyiouanna wrote.

All of the travelers were Alaska Native residents of the community. Most serve on various boards or work with community organizations, although one high school student also went on the trip.

According to spokeswoman Aileen Cole, the trip was sponsored by a coalition of national environmental and progressive groups as part of the “I Will Act On Climate” campaign, in cooperation with the Native Village of Shismaref.

Each member of the group talked before the bicameral task force, a meeting that Weyiouanna said was helpful.

He summed up the village’s issue for the task force.

“Originally our seawall — designed by Army Corps of Engineers — was supposed to have a 25 year life span,” Weyiouanna said. “But by the time we built it, because of projections of rising sea level — it was only going to be good for 15 years. Our small island is only 3 miles long, and not the entire island is developable. A sea wall that can’t protect our community for more than 15 years is not very useful.

“All of our community investments are now faced with a very short timeline, and comes with the question of ‘how long are we going to use this’ before it is no longer useful. We are losing out on jobs and lacking an economic driver because we aren’t investing into our own community.”

In her testimony Peggy Hersrud, who works for the Shishmaref Village Council, elaborated on that lack of investment, and how it is affecting the school district.

“Our school district refuses to fund the Shishmaref school for upgrades to teacher housing, or for our school facilities,” Hersrud told the task force. “The reason is because Shishmaref is on a flood plain, and the risks of flooding are becoming too great to justify the cost, in their opinion.”

The group also talked to members of the administration about the need for a department to focus on providing assistance to communities like Shismaref. Ideally, such a department would be proactive in preventing disasters, not just providing assistance after the fact, Weyiouanna wrote.

The group also hoped that sharing Shismaref’s story would help raise awareness for other communities facing similar issues, and can help garner support for them as well, Weyiouanna said.

Alaska’s delegation has a history of supporting efforts in Shismaref, and the January visit once again showed that: after meeting with the group, Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent a letter to Obama asking for help for the community.

In her letter, Murkowski noted that the U.S. has committed to providing $17 million in aid to Vietnam, specifically so that coastal communities there can reverse environmental degradation and adapt to climate change.

“I believe it is vital that your Administration work with Shismaref and other communities in the region to support the protection of critical infrastructure and assist them with adaption to changes in their physical environment,” Murkowski wrote.

“In short, I ask that you put America first, especially the Alaskans who deal with this reality on a daily basis.”

Overall, Weyiouanna said the trip seemed productive.

“I think that it was important for us to go to Washington to emphasize that we still exist, still need assistance and are ready to work with the State or federal government to gather assistance to ensure that we are able to continue to call Shishmaref home far into the future for our children to enjoy as we have,” Weyiouanna wrote.

Shismaref’s youngest representative agreed.

“Shishmaref is changing faster than I can grow up,” 17-year-old Debra Hersrud told the task force. “And climate change is a problem that has been around longer than I have. It seems unfair to be giving up my home and my culture for a problem that I don’t have the power to solve by myself. But that is why I’m here, and why we are asking for your help – to address the issue of climate change at a national level.”