- Written by Molly Lane
“Be ready," crackled the CB radio voice, "This could be it. Get your family right with God.”
The warning Tuesday, Nov. 8, alerted the 400 residents of Kivalina, an Inupiat village on Alaska's northwest Coast, to an approaching hurricane-force storm.
Notified the previous day, Kivalina Mayor Thomas Hanifan Jr. and other members of the village's incident response team were already preparing. The mayor was in touch with the medics and other emergency responders standing by in Kotzebue and other regional transportation hubs.
Evacuation was not in the plans, but the McQueen School, a K-12 school with about 100 students, would be open for people seeking shelter. The building only had about seven rooms to hold the 400 people. The building, which sat about 20 feet above the ground, was considered safer than most of the ground-level structures located in the path of a potential storm surge.
“We are making sure everything that is loose is being tied down,” Hanifan told a reporter in the hours before the storm crested. “There’s not much we can do.”
Kivalina sits on a tiny exposed strip of land. Inhabitants regard it as an island, with the Chukchi Sea on one side and a lagoon at the mouth of the Kivalina River on the other. With recent beach erosion, the village increasingly exposes to flooding during heavy fall storms.
Severe sea storms are nothing new to Kivalina and many Alaska coastal villages. For the third time in 10 years, however, local residents confronted the prospect of waves expected to reach 20-feet or more, pounding their eroding shoreline. Five years earlier, more than 200 residents voluntarily evacuated when they faced a similar storm. At the time, the village defenses consisted of a sea wall and sand bags. Incident commander Enoch Adams remembers the ocean rolling in 8- to 10-foot waves, with the biggest reaching, perhaps, 15 feet during the night. “Wind was blowing 40-50 mph which is pretty normal for fall storms,” he said.
What was and remains different, is the timing of the heightening in the fall storm threats, Arctic’s sea ice.
Ted Fathauer is the National Weather Service’s lead forecaster in Fairbanks. On the wall of Fathauer’s office hang the recordings of the past 16 years of when the ocean starts to freeze in Alaska. In 1995, before global warming commanded the nation's attention, the sea ice formed on a regular schedule. As the years progressed, the sea turned to ice later and later. As a result, slush ice that once routinely shielded Arctic villages from fall storms, now comes later for many villages like Kivalina.
Thickening, yet not quite frozen, water and loose chunks of ice served to cushion the full force of waves beating on the beach. “The slush ice acts as a buffer," said Enoch Adams.
In Kivalina, man’s hand also contributed to the erosion. In August of 2004, construction was undergoing for a new drain field for the City of Kivalina’s Washeteria, a place to wash clothes and shower. Beach gravel was used as landfill for the drain field. One construction worker warned the community that if they took the gravel, Kivalina would be in danger of erosion. His plea went unnoticed, and the project continued. “An employee informs them that it is not a good idea and that it would cause erosion. The crew does nothing with that information and continues with the work,” notes a timeline posted on the City of Kivalina website. A couple months later, during the annual fall storms, the town experienced severe beach erosion. Ever since, the damage has steadily worsened.
That same year, erosion was the result when a fall storm hit, causing water to rise, and sending waves flooding over the bank filling Kivalina streets with water. Since there wasn’t any protection on the beach, volunteers filled sand bags and placed them on the eroding beach.
“The beach erosion has been gradual over the years, but it was accelerated by construction in 2004,” said local resident Janet Mitchell.
That year, Kivalina, which is located within feet of its beaches, had lost up to 70 feet in the area where the gravel was taken for the drain field. Volunteers placed 55-gallon barrels filled with gravel under the houses that were vulnerable.
A sea wall, built in 2006 by the Northwest Arctic Borough, failed to protect the beach. The seawall material, called HESCO containers, is an erosion control product that has been used successfully in other parts of the state.
That October, another storm hit. Since the sea wall failed to help the beach from eroding, metal sheets were situated, and even half of a DC-3 airplane was tried in hopes of saving the beach distress. All methods failed.
Some people wondered why the wall failed, but the locals knew why. “To fill the HESCO baskets, despite the warnings from the local residents and a few employees that were hired, the Drake Construction crew were told to extract gravel from the beach directly in front of the AVEC fuel tank farm to use as part of the fill. During the process, they were told by some workers that it would cause serious erosion to the bank but their words went unheeded and work continued," the City of Kivalina website noted.
Storm causes evacuation
In 2007, another severe storm pounded the coast and again it was stripped of its natural seasonal defenses. "There was no more slush build-up to protect the beach,” said Adams. The residents fled toward higher ground. Volunteers went door-to-door or called people to spread the news of a severe flood warning issued by the National Weather Service. Leaving town was voluntary, but most people complied. Many people took to the warnings and packed up their families and left by airplane or by ATVs. Pilots who had not used up their air time volunteered to take villagers to the neighboring community of Kotzebue.
“As a precautionary measure, more than 250 villagers were evacuated for fear of flooding and damage to homes and structures,” The Arctic Sounder, a regional weekly newspaper, reported on Sept. 20, 2007. Evacuees were met with graciousness.
Kivalina residents found hospitality at Red Dog, a mining community located about 40 miles from Kivalina, the Nulagvik Hotel in Kotzebue and the Kotzebue Armory. Many Kotzebue residents opened up their homes to people in need of a place to stay.
“I am forever grateful to Red Dog, the Nulagvik Hotel the Armory and the numerous families in Kotzebue who opened up their homes for people to stay,” Adams said.
Enoch Adams stayed behind, serving as incident commander for about 70 volunteers, many of whom spent hours filling sand bags and placing them on the eroding beach.
“As a result of the onslaught,” reported The Arctic Sounder, “500 cubic-yard super sacks of sand and gravel washed into the raging sea and about 10 feet of shoreline eroded from this storm-battered finger of land.”
In 2008, a rock revetment was built by the US Army Corp. of Engineers. The rock wall had not been previously tested, but residents were confident it would hold during storms.
Record breaking storm, dubbed 'Blizzi-cane'
The close calls in 2004 and 2007 have weather forecasters paying more attention.
This fall, Fathauer tracked the storm brewing on the advanced computer programs that predict weather. “The beginning stages of the storm came into view late Saturday evening,” he said when, “after this low pressure system crossed over Japan into the Pacific. It has been gathering strength and speed. The computer weather forecast models have been coming ever closer together in their projections over the past two days.”
Monday, November 7, the National Weather Service called all of the villages on the Western coast of Alaska to prepare what was described as “a once in 30-50 year storm.”
Anxiety was thick in Kivalina in the few days before the storm of 2011 hit. Residents took to God in their time of need. Prayers were requested through media, such as Facebook, texts, and telephone. People, not only in Alaska, but nationwide learned of the hurricane force wind storm and sent out their silent prayers. All throughout the storm, many comments were made on Facebook giving their prayers and concerns for residents. “Prayer was said by my family in my bedroom,” Stephie Koonook posted on her wall. “Thank you Lord Jesus you are the comforter of all, and protector of all. We are children of God and He will protect His own, amen, from Koonook’s and Koenig’s," which was posted on November 8, 6:18 p.m.
Others in the neighboring community of Point Hope sent out their requests also. “Yes the weather is getting bad out there, and yes we are on flood warning, but if we go to God in prayer and have faith in Him, He will keep us safe through this,” Zach Lane posted on FaceBook almost two hours later. Reports of a young girl in Kivalina had dreams of God’s protection. Eight-year-old Kaylee Sage, dreamt that angels were hovering over the community, guarding and protecting the residents.
Residents were warned via radio or telephone that this storm might break records. It also threatened many communities on Alaska’s Western coast such as Nome and Shismaref.
Due to its location and the village’s position on the spit, Kivalina was expected to be among the hardest hit with winds gusting up to 85 miles an hour. Ocean waves as high as 20 feet were forecast as with a 4-foot rise in sea level, double the level placing the town in danger of a flood.
City Councilwoman Colleen Swan, 53, has lived in Kivalina all her life and is used of these types of storms. She explained that on the first day of the storm, Kivalina experienced high winds from the Southeast. The winds gusted up to 90 miles an hour. People were on their own that day; they had the choice to stay in their homes or at the school.
Stephie Koonook decided to stay at her home instead of going to the local school. She had hoped to watch over her house to make sure nothing was damaged.
The second day, however, the response team declared a disaster and urged residents to seek shelter at the school because they were in danger of high waters. This is when people started to get scared. The villagers felt like prisoners because they were stuck inside with nowhere to go and for some it felt like a lifetime. The second day, incident commanders sent a message to the villagers that it was time to get to higher ground, so Koonook packed her kids up and left for the school.
Elders are held with much respect to the Inupiat so when they have advice to give, people listen. Elders talked on the VHF radio and told residents to be ready and to stay together in this time of need. They urged people to pray and put their faith in God. “People started getting scared when they went to go look at the water channel. The water was gushing through to the lagoon,” said Swan. “Our elders were even worried.”
Swan was worried for her community because she said they had no way to escape in case of severe flooding. Swan believes there are three things that saved Kivalina. The first is by the grace of God. Second, the rock revetment held and third, water froze in the lagoon a couple days before the storm hit. Swan believes if the lagoon did not freeze, Kivalina would have definitely been the victim of severe flooding.
Pauline Koonook lives with her parents Stephie and Luke Koonook Jr. She helped her mom throughout the ordeal since her father was at work in Red Dog. “I was worried about the kids and everything else after hearing it’s going to be worse than the last. We got the kid’s clothes ready and packed,” said Pauline, “thinking we're going to be leaving on a plane or taking off to Port Site by ATV.”
As residents took shelter in the school, they could still hear the wind howling through the windows of the school. Children were spooked while many adults worried about their homes and property. Power lines fell down, causing power outages. The school still had power thanks to its own generators.
In the aftermath, tales of satellite dishes coming unhinged from roofs were told. Heavy metal dumpsters blew away from the wind as if they were as light as a feather. The older homes took the most damage. The front storm shed doors blew off, exposing their insides to the elements. Few metal roofing came undone from houses, and even the front door to the heavy equipment building came off.
Time for change
Many villagers vow it’s time to move the community. “The island is shrinking,” said Janet Mitchell. “The sooner we move the better. Erosion is eating up the town.”
New locations have discussed the process for a long time. “The North West Arctic Borough is currently seeking $30 million to construct an emergency escape road to allow the residents to evacuate Kivalina in the event of a major storm and flood event,” according the Army Corp’s findings.
No such road has been created or funded. Locations chosen by Kivalina leaders in nearby places always have a fault to them.
The Army Corp of Engineers has surveyed every place the community wishes to relocate, but something is always wrong with the site. Locals have chosen places such as Igrugaivik (Wulik River), Imnaaquq (Kivalina River), Kiniktuuraq (Across the chanel), Tatchim Sau, and Imnaaquq Bluffs. The Army Corp found the first site to sit directly on top of a lot of ice, therefore causing the site to be unfit for relocation. The other sites also posed as flood risks, and plans were abandoned.
Money is also a factor. It would cost an estimate of over $100 million to relocate the village.
The people of Kivalina are very strong-willed and have a close-knit relationship with each other. They really come together in times of need. Leaders are doing everything they can to get the village the safety they need during the falls storms, but eventually the storms will overpower the little village.
Colleen Swan has high hope the proper officials will recognize that Kivalina is in eminent danger and it is necessary to relocate. “I hope people in authority are paying attention (to the recent storm). Something needs to be done about our situation.”
Meteorologist Fathauer, is a believer in global warming. “Global warming is not something we are making up. It’s very serious. Kivalina is going to have to move in as little as just three years. We can’t afford to wait.”