Mayor of Golovin Charlie Brown talks with U.S. Coast Guard servicemen on Friday, September 23, 2022 during storm damage cleanup in the community.Lisa Haugen, daughter of Robert "Bobby" Amarok, rides her father's four-wheeler outside his home in Golovin which faced damage from recent typhoon Merbok.

Even before Merbok, Native villages were in harm’s way

A trail of coastal flooding reveals gaps in government support to address climate threats

By Jenni Monet

Robert “Bobby” Amarok could see the storm building out his kitchen window.   Through paneless glass, he looked straight out onto Golovnin Lagoon where his daughter Lisa used to swim as a girl.  That was way before the village’s shoreline started slipping to slow and steady erosion.

 

But after the typhoon, there was nothing gradual about the massive waves that slammed into the beach.  Chomped away were giant clumps of seaside sod exposing a dramatic underlayer of frozen soil.  For Amarok, his daughter, and many others in Golovin, it was the first time any had laid eyes on so much permafrost.  When the rain finally stopped, the now-naked icy ground was literally sweating in the exposed elements.  

 

The tropical storm system, Merbok, that moved into Western Alaska two weekends ago met an Arctic ecosystem that climate scientists say is very different from just a few decades back.  Air and ocean temperatures, intimately synchronized with the formation of annual sea ice, have become warmer and more disruptive compared to a similar squall that pounded the region almost fifty years prior.

 

Amarok remembers the Bering Sea Storm of 1974 like it was yesterday.  “A big one,” he said.  “But there was sea ice that time.”  Then as now, he looked out his window in disbelief at floodwaters surrounding his home less than a mile from shore.  “The water had never run up that high before,” Amarok, 74, said.  In his mind, that’s when Golovin’s seasonal surges started to change, if not intensify.  “Almost every year, now, there’s water that comes up real high.”

 

The threat of frequent coastal flooding has not been lost on community leaders.  In recent years, the City of Golovin was awarded a state grant to hire an engineering firm to help prepare a relocation plan.  But today, the Mayor of Golovin, Charlie Brown, says the effort is more like an expansion project. The idea isn’t to move the entire community, he said, but to build a new subdivision for some of its 150 residents – Elders like Bobby Amarok who knows he needs to live somewhere that's safer and on higher ground.

Golovin’s planning effort and restrategizing over the years is emblematic in how Native villages are responding to frontline challenges where sea level rise is happening faster in the Arctic more than anywhere else, and where the impacts are demographically lopsided.  Of all the communities faced with chronic erosion, flooding, or rapidly melting permafrost, the majority are Alaska Native villages. 

According to the Denali Commission, the independent federal agency for Alaska economic affairs found a total of 73 federally-recognized tribes out of 229 face climate impacts at rates that exceed any other Alaska community.  It means these villages are more threatened than the rest in losing critical infrastructure, ancestral subsistence lands, or even human life.  

But these coastal communities, like Golovin, a traditional Iñupiat village, have largely struggled to find relief.  For all the hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending devoted to helping address the effects of a warming planet, the GAO has found few, if any, success stories.   And it’s not a new problem.  Since 2009, when auditors first called attention to at least  31 imminently threatened villages in Alaska, they have repeatedly urged Congress to pass policies to help streamline the process, making it easier to deliver solutions to the most environmentally vulnerable.  So far, lawmakers have been slow to act.

Senior U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and newly-elected Representative Mary Peltola arrived in Golovin the day after National Guard servicemen and women hauled away a freezer that had floated onto the school's playground – the stockpile of moose meat, dried trout, and bags of blueberries were a sorry loss.

Both politicians were in Washington D.C. when the typhoon struck. For Rep. Peltola, a Yup'ik daughter raised on subsistence fishing, top of mind was the toll the storm had taken on Native food caches. Hunted, gathered and stored across the seasons, the harvests were now lost mere weeks ahead of winter.

"There's been talk of the importance of replacing freezers," Peltola said at a recent town hall-style meeting held in Nome. Murkowski and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell were there. "But we know that doesn't replace salmon, and halibut," she said, offering assurance. "We are working on it."

For the first time, Alaska Natives have one of their own in Peltola to advocate for needs that Congress has long overlooked or gotten wrong. But her range of influence has yet to be realized. She has only until January to complete the term left vacant by the late Congressman Don Young. And she is running in the general election to carry out the next full term. How voters feel Peltola has weathered this latest storm could help secure her seat.

Whether anyone balks over her recent support for the Willow project, an oil and gas deal loathed by environmentalists, is also yet to be seen. In Republican-leaning Alaska, it could actually help seal her historic election victory, even though she is a Democrat. She's already won over her conservative colleague, Sen. Murkowski, who is also up for re-election.

In contrast, neither candidate is campaigning on platforms that speak to climate concerns that have lingered since the storm: In the fastest-warming place on the planet, how seriously should we accept extreme weather as our new normal? And how best should we be preparing for it?

For Murkowski's part, she leans on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that she championed last fall which allocates around $130 million for community relocation projects and $86 million for climate resiliency efforts – relatively small pots of funding when considering the estimated 13 million people in the U.S. who the National Climate Assessment predicts will need to escape sea level rise in their lifetime.

"We have a lot of work to do on our long game," admitted Rep. Peltola.  Endearingly, she also added that she'd only been on the job twelve days.

The GAO’s most recent call for climate response reform came just as Golovin was starting to pick up the pieces left in Merbok’s path.  On Monday, September 19, a new watchdog report was released, calling attention to the fiscal risks facing the federal government in reacting to extreme weather events as opposed to planning and preparing for them.  “Managing climate change is on [the GAO’s High Risk List] in part because of concerns about the increasing costs of disaster response and recovery efforts,” the report said.  

Roughly $315 billion dollars in federal spending have gone to respond to communities across the country battling drought, wildfires, flooding, or violent storms – and that’s just between 2015 to 2021.  In the Norton Sound region where Golovin is situated, disaster estimates have reached $40 million dollars from 2004 to 2011. With disaster costs projected to increase, it has many environmental practitioners wondering what it will take to enhance climate resilience programs.

Twyla Thurmond, an Inupiaq consultant with the relocation assistance group, Climigration Network, says the recent typhoon should be a wake-up call to politicians. “It’s like the flooding literally has to hit their doorstep to blink an eye at it,” said Thurmond. 

A former planner for her home community of Shishmaref, situated on the eroding barrier island of Sarichef off the Chukchi Sea, Thurmond has experienced first-hand how gaps in government funding and response rates are like treating severe wounds with mere Band-Aids.  Three years ago, after giant waves made impassable the only road to the village dump, FEMA aid was able to re-open the critical infrastructure.  “But there wasn’t funding to protect it for the next storm season,” said Thurmond.  

After Merbok, 100 feet of Shishmaref’s eroding sanitation road washed away.  Repairs came in the form of repurposed rock revetments taken from some other segment protecting some other portion of the road.  Three volunteers carried out the work (a new Band-Aid), but their noble efforts are far from a long-term solution. 

In the wake of the typhoon, the State of Alaska and the federal government both declared disasters that will unlock millions of dollars in aid to help communities with ongoing recovery efforts – from temporary housing and home repairs to low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and businesses recover from the disaster, according to President Biden’s declaration.   The Bureau of Indian Affairs will also distribute $2.6 million to 45 federally-recognized tribes in the region – $50,000 for each village for emergency supplies that may not be covered by Alaska’s Individual Assistance Program or FEMA, and an additional $10 million to each village for potable water.  

But none of these funds will meet the estimated $2 million that Shishmaref planners say it will take to rebuild their sanitation road.  For that, the community will continue to navigate a dizzying maze of bureaucracy to seek funding from grant programs spread across multiple federal, state, and tribal agencies – and from few that are designed specifically to facilitate the unique needs facing Alaska Native communities.

“What we’re looking for are solutions that are designed for us here in the Arctic,” said Mayor Brown as he maneuvered his SUV over dunes of fresh sand that blew into the village like snowdrifts. 

“Right now, some of the relief that’s been offered to us is fine if you live in Florida," he said downshifting on the soggy beach. “But we’re not Florida.” 

Since mid-morning, the mayor had been waiting on the arrival of Sen. Murkowski where he planned to drive her around Golovin's muddy streets, showing her the homes that had slid from their foundations, and introducing her to villagers like Bobby Amarok whose house now needed new floor insulation. (The original layer had been contaminated by floodwaters that seeped in with spilled diesel fuel and sewage.) If there was time, Black said he planned to ask the senator to help extend subsistence quotas for area hunters, too. In his mind, more moose meat could help replace some of what the storm took.

As he waited, it felt like time was fleeting. Freeze-up was maybe five or six weeks away. The sense of urgency was metaphor for the ensuing climate crisis targeting his typhoon-torn community.

“We are actually starting to think more proactively when it comes to how we make our coastal communities more resilient in the face of climate change,” said Murkowski at the FEMA gathering in Nome. “But for communities like Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, or Golovin that are sitting on ground as flat as this table with no protection around them – is that the safest place for those people,” she asked rhetorically. “Even though their families have been there for generations?” 

Back in Amarok’s kitchen where the room’s entire linoleum floor had been stripped revealing nothing but plywood, he and his daughter Lisa recalled the memories they shared between one storm season to the next – a drifting boat docked at their doorstep, one year; a disappearing lighthouse a few years before that – vivid points in the family timeline captured through the window.  

“I know I need to find a safe place to stay up the hill,” said Amorak, acknowledging Golovin's vulnerability.  But the thought of relocating anywhere else blew his mind.  He wouldn’t even leave his couch when the typhoon began to rise around him.  But villagers, including his son, knew when to put his stubbornness to rest when they arrived in deep water to carry his aging body away in the bucket of a front-end loader.  

“Where else would I go?” he said, shrugging his shoulders with a laugh.  “This is home."

 

NOTE Correction: The name of Golovin's Mayor is Charlie Brown, a correction was made from a previous posting which identified him as Mayor Charlie Black.

This story was updated on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. The article is also published on www.indigenously.org

 

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