For years agency reports have listed Shaktoolik as eroding with immediate need for relocation. But without government funding, little action has been taken and erosion has progressed. Now the people of Shaktoolik are taking matters into their own hands and building a coastal berm to protect their community.
A four-foot high pile of driftwood lines the coast of Shaktoolik. It stretches one mile from the first house to the dump. The barrier is the city’s first step in building a coastal berm, and it is the community’s first defense for fall storm surges.
Harvey Sookikyak is one of the crew members constructing the berm. “If we try and wait for any kind of federal money, then it’s going to take more than a while to get this thing started,” he said, explaining the reason for the project. “So we decided it’s time for us to do something on our own.”
Coordinating the project is Eugene Asicksik. He’s the Mayor of Shaktoolik and the Vice Chair of the Shaktoolik Native Corporation. “There has been a number of agencies that have come up with plans but there’s been no money to actually start,” Asickik said. Those plans include evacuation roads, evacuation centers, and even relocation.
Over the years, Asicksik said a parade of government and private agencies have landed in the community to assess the erosion. He says they investigate, write a report, and leave.
Two examples are in 2008 the state’s Immediate Action Workgroup released a report classifying Shaktoolik as one of eight communities in Alaska “in greatest peril due to climate change.” In 2009 the federal Government Accountability Office listed Shaktoolik as one of four Alaska communities “likely need[ing] to move all at once and as soon as possible” from continued flooding and erosion.
“But again there is no money,” Asickik repeated. “That’s where we’ve taken initiative upon ourselves.”
That initiative is building a coastal berm. Over the past two years the community has saved and raised money to build it: $120,000 from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation in community development funds and $500,000 from NSEDC in an outside entity grant.
Asicksik said they are going to work until the money runs out— about three months. The funds will pay for labor, equipment, and fuel. It will not pay for an engineer.
Instead, Shaktoolik is basing the berm’s design off a blueprint from the Department of Transportation. The DOT had intended to construct a vegetated berm in Shaktoolik as an experiment for other eroding communities. Shaktoolik lifted that design, just without the vegetation.
“The money doesn’t allow it,” Asicksik said.
DOT coastal engineers Harvey Smith and Ruth Carter drafted the design and support the community’s efforts.
“They’re kind of taking our idea and making it happen in a bigger way than what we could do with our little grant,” Ruth Carter said when asked about the community’s self-engineering.
The berm will consist of a driftwood pile, embedded with gravel, backed by a gravel mound. The materials come from the Shaktoolik coast.
Though the community is paying to construct the berm, if the barrier gets damaged, the state or FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—might be responsible for repairing it.
Jeremy Zidek is the Public Information Officer for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and explained, “This berm, if it was owned by the city, it was properly engineered and maintained as a protective measure for the community, it can be eligible under public assistance program.”
The berm’s construction is in its second week. To date, the workers have piled the driftwood and finished cutting a road to begin hauling the gravel.
Gesturing to the berm’s beginning, Asicksik said, “Yes, we could just sit here and see what happens. But I can’t. I personally can’t. So in a way we are taking our own fate.”
Asicksik said he does not know how long the berm will last. At best, he says the barrier will prevent a surge from cresting into the community. If anything, he said, it will buy the community time— time to remain in Shaktoolik or just time to escape the storm.