ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Residents of a Native village threatened by erosion were thankful for President Barack Obama's attention to their plight, saying they hope his visit to Alaska will help them secure funding to build a critical evacuation road to drier ground.
Even with a protective ocean rock wall, the impoverished Inupiat Eskimo community of Kivalina has no more than a decade left before erosion begins to force people from their homes, said Millie Hawley, president of Kivalina's tribal council.
Villagers say a couple homes near the village lagoon are already threatened by erosion, which has come within 3 feet of the foundation of one dwelling.
With about 400 people, Kivalina is located at the tip of a barrier reef 80 miles northwest of the regional hub of Kotzebue, where Obama was scheduled to visit Wednesday during his tour of Alaska to show the effects of climate change.
In July, a White House advance team visited Kivalina about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage to scope it out as a possible stop for the president, but the visit didn't materialize.
The president, however, did get a look at Kivalina on Wednesday as Air Force One did a flyover when it was en route to Kotzebue. The president's plane came down low to the ground, and the village was visible on the left side of the plane.
The pilots turned the plane around to fly over Kivalina again so the president could get a second look.
"On my way here, I flew over the island of Kivalina, which is already receding into the ocean," Obama said during his address in Kotzebue.
He described how waves sweep across the entire barrier island at times.
"For many of those Alaskans, it's no longer a question of if they are going to relocate, but when," Obama said. "Think about that. If another country tried to do wipe out an entire town, we'd do everything in our power to protect it."
Hawley was among 10 village leaders who flew by charter plane to Kotzebue, and she introduced the president before his address.
"I think we're in a prominent place to get our issues addressed on climate change," Hawley said. "It's all about life safety and food security."
Brian Deese, Obama's senior adviser for climate and energy issues, said the federal government was working to address concerns in Kivalina and similar villages that find it hard to access federal funds for relocation.
He said that Alaska Natives had identified USDA water infrastructure grants as a particular source of funding that could be helpful.
Hawley said the village wants to build a 7-mile evacuation road and causeway to the mainland where residents voted several years ago to build a future school at a potential relocation site.
Erosion is only part of the impact of climate change, which is accelerating in the Arctic. Villagers say the migrations of animals they rely on for much of their diet, such as bearded seal and caribou, have become unpredictable and is taking place far earlier. That is forcing residents to travel farther to hunt.
For the past few years, the caribou that used to show up by the thousands near the village have all but disappeared.
Also, the ice that protects the shores from storm surges is forming later and melting earlier, allowing stronger storms to lash out at the eroding coastline.
Joseph Swan Jr., who manages Kivalina's water plant, has lived in the village all his 47 years. He welcomed the opportunity for the village to be on Obama's radar because the president has global influence.
"It's great that somebody's finally paying attention, real attention, and letting us know we're not invisible," Swan said.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report from Air Force One over Kivalina.
Follow Rachel D'Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro