Dealing with erosion is complicated. Who can help?

The village of Akiak has submitted its hazard mitigation plan to the state. That makes Akiak eligible for the larger-than-usual hazard mitigation funding that Alaska has available this year, due to the November 2018 earthquake in the southcentral part of the state. But how did Akiak know to take advantage of that? They had some unique help.

About a month ago, Akiak called a meeting with various state and federal agencies. They wanted to review their hazard mitigation plan before they submitted it.

“I didn’t realize that there were so many different agencies that the state and federal government has,” commented Akiak City Administrator David Gilila.

Gilila is working to move the six homes closest to the eroding riverbank. He was surprised that so many agencies showed up at the meeting to help: 24 different agencies. Dealing with this web of bureaucracy is one of the biggest challenges eroding communities face when pursuing relocation. Luckily, Akiak has help.

“I view myself as something like a disaster navigator for this community,” says Akiak’s consultant, Joel Neimeyer. He’s the one who knew that applying for hazard mitigation funding this year, before September, would be a good bet. 

Akiak hired Neimeyer because dealing with erosion is complicated. Relocating a single home requires moving the house, the water and sewer pipes, the power lines, the roads, and often each project requires a different grant with a different agency. 

“It’s not one, it’s five, it’s not 10, it may be, you know, 25 or more resources that you’re chasing to put together a large project, and that’s when it gets really complex,” said Don Antrobus, project manager at the Denali Commission, a federal agency that has helped many Alaskan communities with erosion challenges.

Akiak Tribal Administrator Sheila Carl says that she might have been able to figure out the programs and grants on her own, but in time to save the home closest to the water?  

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d be able to get it as fast or put together things as fast as he could,” Carl said. “Eventually, I’d need a consultant.”

And Neimeyer is uniquely suited to help Akiak. He served as federal co-chair of the Denali Commission, so he’s helped eroding communities before. Plus, his mom was born in Akiak.

“You may know of Mike Williams, who’s on the tribal council. He’s actually named after my grandfather, Michael Sara,” Neimeyer said.

But what about any other eroding village that doesn’t have a Joel Neimeyer?  

“I think it would be difficult to duplicate this relationship with another village,” said Sally Cox, a planner with the State of Alaska. 

Back when Newtok was first planning its relocation, Cox and the Denali Commission worked together as their navigator. They were able to help Newtok secure enough funding to kick-start its move. But soon afterwards, it was clear that Newtok wasn’t the only community looking at relocation. 

Denali Commission’s Antrobus says that the work quickly outgrew the size of their staff.

“I don’t think there’s a single entity in the state that currently has the capacity to provide that for all communities,” Antrobus said.

And many smaller communities don’t have the money to hire a private consultant. Antrobus says that the Denali Commission published a guide called the Catalog of Federal Programs to help them.

It’s a 123-page menu of federal programs that eroding communities can apply to for funding. In addition to the risk of falling into the river, communities face the prospect of drowning in paperwork.

Akiak’s Carl isn’t going to let that happen. 

“There’s one home that we’re most concerned about, and we’re looking to move that on our own if necessary,” Carl said.

She says that the fall storms will hit soon, and they’re going to save their neighbor’s house with or without any agency’s help. 

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