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terrays | Jun 15, 2009 11:30 AM

It's fairly common knowledge that the poor, though they've released far less than their share of the world's greenhouse gasses, will feel the nastiest effects of climate change. Usually, we take "the poor," in this case, to mean residents of Tuvalu, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea or other developing states whose governments lack the resources or the inclination to help them. But the poor residents of the industrialized world have been, and will be, disproportionately affected as well. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina proved that, and this recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office makes the point as well.

According to the report, 31 of Alaska's roughly 231 native villages face "imminent threats" from erosion and flooding related to climate change, and most have already been affected to some degree. Twelve are in the process of relocating. Scattered up Alaska's coast and strung along its rivers, the villages have been subject to flooding Kivalina2and erosion when river ice breaks up in the spring, and during coastal storms. Those may sound like run-of-the-mill problems in the far north, but rising temperatures have made them more dangerous. Permafrost -- the glue that holds the land together -- has been thawing, and the sea ice that typically sheltered coastal villages from waves and storm surge has dwindled.

The Government Accountability Office has taken an interest because so far, the U.S. government has done little to address the problem on a large scale. 

Although the plight of the Alaskan villages has drawn the attention of major news outlets in the past (this story is worth reading), media in the lower forty-eight and elsewhere have largely overlooked the GAO report. That's hard to fathom since a story drawn from it would almost write itself. Here are some excerpts:

Kivalina, population: 398
Identified in our December 2003 report as an imminently threatened village seeking to relocate. Declared a state flood disaster area in 2006. Subsequently, in October 2007, Kivalina evacuated most of its residents when it was threatened by a sea storm with a forecasted 12- to 14-foot surge for the 10-foot elevation village. Village leaders told us that this evacuation was so dangerous that it should never be attempted again, and the villagers are considering relocation site options.                                                         

Newtok, population: 353                                                                                                                                                            Floodwaters from the 2005 storm completely surrounded the village, turning it into an island for several days, and the Ninglick River barge landing was destroyed in that storm, making it difficult to deliver essential supplies such as fuel to the village. Village residents have voted to relocate.

Apparently the federal government has been aware of the situation for years, but no federal agency has taken a lead management role. So even when government agencies have tried to help, those efforts have failed to add up. In 1994, the village of Allakaket was almost completely destroyed by a severe flood. At the time, the Federal EShishmarefmergency Management Agency and Alaska's Division of Emergency services stepped in and helped residents draw up a comprehensive, 20-year relocation plan. But without one lead agency to keep tabs on the relocation, the government assistance and funding dried up. People are still living in the now-dilapidated emergency housing constructed after the 1994 flood, and much of the village has been rebuilt on the flood plain.

There have been other problems as well. For example, the report states that in 2004, Congress gave the Army Corps of Engineers $2 million to study the threats facing the villages. But the assignment was worded poorly -- or the Corps interpreted it too literally -- and the resulting report dealt only with erosion, not flooding. Without data on both pieces of the puzzle, federal agencies lack the information they need in order to take effective action. The report was five years in the making.

And a handful of disaster assistance programs are available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but for a few reasons, most of the villages haven't been able to tap into them. For example, many villages can't participate in the National Flood Insurance Program because they aren't incorporated cities, and most of the villages aren't eligible for disaster mitigation and relief grants because they haven't yet drawn up the prerequisite disaster mitigation plans or haven't officially been declared federal disaster zones.

There are other bureaucratic hurdles as well. Such as this one:

Even the most imminently threatened Alaska Native villages have difficulty qualifying under cost-effectiveness criteria because the value of their infrastructure is usually less than the cost of proposed
erosion or flood control projects.

It wouldn't make sense to throw relief money around willy nilly, but the rules stand in the way of a proactive response:

 As time passes without significant progress being made on these village relocations, the potential for disaster increases, as does the ultimate cost of moving the villages out of harm’s way. The paradox is that funding would be made available to respond to a disaster, but no comprehensive program exists to proactively assist these villages to prevent an impending disaster. Responding to these disasters in an emergency situation may result in rushed decisions and solutions that are not optimal and less environmentally sound.

Lionel Terray
Jun 19, 2009 12:47 AM
Have you ever googled your first name? I just did and learned that the French climber, Lionel Terray, died in 1965 climbing in the Vercors region in France where I competed in cross-country ski races in February.

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