Akiak lost a mile-long stretch of riverbank to erosion two weeks ago. In some parts of that mile, the Kuskokwim River moved 75 feet closer to the community. The shift has put one house within 15 feet of the river. Several others also need to relocate immediately.
The more Akiak City Administrator David Gilila looks at the cost of moving the houses and connecting them to services like water, sewer, and roads, the more expensive it gets.
“We’re talking millions. Millions,” Gilila said. “I can’t fathom even to estimate the dollar figure.”
Joel Neimeyer, a consultant for Akiak’s erosion problems, says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could provide grants to tackle the immediate problem of moving the homes. But to get the millions of dollars for water, sewer, and roads, Akiak will need funding from other sources.
Luckily, Neimeyer says, if there was ever a year to get funding for natural disasters in Alaska, this is the year.
“We’re in an unusual situation,” Neimeyer explained. “After the Anchorage/Mat-Su Valley earthquake in November of last year, Alaska is eligible for a lot of disaster funding. So normally, the State of Alaska doesn’t have much money in this category; this year they’re going to get a lot.”
Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management confirmed that the state has millions of dollars more in disaster funding this year because of the earthquake. And erosion events like the one in Akiak are eligible for some of that money.
The money Akiak needs is far from guaranteed, and Gilila says that following complicated bureaucratic processes is not something Akiak is used to doing.
“That’s always the hardest part of applying for anything," he explained. "The paperwork that we gotta turn in."
Neimeyer outlined the process: “They’ve got to get a contractor on board in short order, get the contractor to go through the community planning process, draft the report, submit it to FEMA and have FEMA then approve it, and do this all by October 31, because that’s the closing date on a grant. If they don’t have an approved hazard mitigation process by October 31, they cannot compete.”
Then, Neimeyer says that these agencies have to agree that the erosion in Akiak is a disaster, and Akiak has to compete with other communities for the this money. Assuming Akiak gets funding, they need to decide where to put the houses so they aren’t at risk of falling in the river again in a few years. There isn’t any evidence that there is a safe place that erosion will never reach. Constructing defenses to slow the river's erosion could be cost prohibative. Neimeyer estimates that a seawall could cost $80 million, and he says that Akiak won't have access to that kind of money.
For now, City Administrator Gilila says that the community is still trying to stabilize the riverbank with metal poles and burlap tarps.