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A new fund is asking for donations to help Alaska Native communities facing environmental disasters

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Courtesy of John Jones
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The Northwest Arctic village of Buckland has seen flooding since May 12. Aerial footage taken on May 13, 2021 shows ice break-up east of town on the Buckland River.

A new fund is calling for private donations to help Alaska Native communities facing climate change-related disasters. That source of funding will almost certainly not be enough money to fully respond to the environmental disasters that Alaska communities face, but it has at least one advantage over traditional grants.

In spring 2021, a major flood swept through the Northwest Alaska village of Buckland, washing out roads and destabilizing homes. The community needed money fast. Luckily, a new fund had just been created for this exact purpose: the Climate Impact Response Fund, created by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC)’s Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation. Within weeks of the disaster, the fund sent a $10,000 check to the community to buy emergency gravel to shore up roads and home foundations.

When you’re responding to an environmental disaster, $10,000 is not a lot of money. However, ANTHC Senior Director of Development Jen Harrington, who helps manage the fund, said that there is a need for small amounts of money that can be sent quickly.

“If we had, as an example, chosen to pursue federal funding or state funding, the timeline would have been much longer and we wouldn't have had the ability to to be as nimble and as fast acting as we were,” Harrington said.

Another example of where this fund would have come in handy is in Kotlik several years ago. In May 2019, spring storms and floods suddenly eroded much of the riverbank. Tribal Administrator Pauline Okitkun said that left one home nearly in the Kotlik River.

“Part of the home was hanging off the riverbank. A quarter of it,” Okitkun said.

The tribe had to move the house immediately and needed money to do so. The grant process often takes months, and Okitkun didn’t have that kind of time.

“At the time, we did have bingo funds available for emergency basis to hire local people to move the home,” Okitkun said.

Scraping together a few thousand dollars from the tribe’s bingo funds, the tribe was able to move the home back 50 feet from the river’s edge, removing it from immediate danger.

The Climate Impact Response Fund had not been created yet back when this happened, but Okitkun said that Kotlik may need to rely on it this year. If storms this spring suddenly lop off large chunks of shoreline, the tribe may again need emergency funding to quickly move homes that are near the riverbank.

“If we're able to grab that opportunity for this coming year? Yes, I would take that. That would definitely help,” Okitkun said.

A longer-term solution would require a lot more money than what the fund could offer. Okitkun said that Kotlik is talking about a larger relocation like Newtok or Napakiak. Those communities are looking at total costs of well over $100 million for their moves. Statewide, the Alaska Federation of Natives estimates that it will cost $4.5 billion over the next 50 years to protect infrastructure in 144 Alaska native communities from erosion, flooding, or melting permafrost. Existing state and federal funding only scratches the surface of what’s needed.

The Climate Impact Response Fund officially launched in November 2021, a few months after it awarded a grant to Buckland. Since then, the fund has raised just $22,000. ANTHC’s Harrington said that it clearly isn’t the cure-all for Alaska Native communities facing climate change.

“It was definitely not created with the expectation that it would fill the billions of dollars of gaps in funding that's needed in Alaska from federal and state entities,” Harrington said. “Our goal here was to try and create something that allowed people to get support very quickly.”

If you would like to donate to the Climate Impact Response Fund, you can head to ANTHC’s foundation’s website at healthyalaskanatives.org.

Greg Kim is a news reporter for KYUK covering environment, health, education, public safety, culture and subsistence. He's covered everything from Newtok's relocation due to climate change-fueled erosion to the Bethel chicken massacre of 2020.
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