Alaska Native Villages:

Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion

GAO-09-551: Published: Jun 3, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 3, 2009.

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In December 2003, GAO reported that most of Alaska's more than 200 Native villages were affected to some degree by flooding and erosion (GAO-04-142). Since 2003, state officials have identified the growing impacts of climate change, increasing the urgency of federal and state efforts to identify imminently threatened villages and assess their relocation options. GAO was asked to report on (1) the flooding and erosion threats that Alaska Native villages currently face, (2) the federal programs that are available to assist villages facing potential disasters, (3) the status of village relocation efforts, and (4) how federal assistance to relocating villages is prioritized. GAO interviewed and gathered documentation from federal and state agency officials as well as regional organizations and village representatives.

While the flooding and erosion threats to Alaska Native villages have not been completely assessed, since 2003, federal, state, and village officials have identified 31 villages that face imminent threats. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (Corps) March 2009 Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment identified many villages threatened by erosion, but did not assess flooding impacts. At least 12 of the 31 threatened villages have decided to relocate--in part or entirely--or to explore relocation options. Federal programs to assist threatened villages prepare for and recover from disasters and to protect and relocate them are limited and unavailable to some villages. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has several disaster preparedness and recovery programs, but villages often fail to qualify for them, generally because they may lack approved disaster mitigation plans or have not been declared federal disaster areas. Although there is no single comprehensive proactive federal program to assist villages with their relocation efforts, individual federal agencies can assist villages on specific projects, such as funding the construction or relocation of homes. However, 64 villages do not qualify for affordable housing and relocation assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program because the federal law governing the program does not recognize unincorporated Alaska Native villages in Alaska's unorganized borough as eligible units of general local government. Of the 12 villages exploring relocation options, Newtok has made the most progress in its relocation efforts. The Newtok Planning Group, formed in 2006 by federal, state, regional, and village partners, has helped to accelerate the relocation process that the village proactively initiated in 1994. The 3 other villages that will likely need to relocate all at once--Kivalina, Shaktoolik, and Shishmaref--have yet to identify sites that federal, state, and village officials agree are safe, sustainable, and desirable for the subsistence lifestyle of the villagers. Eight other villages have begun to gradually migrate to new locations over time or are evaluating options for doing so. In the absence of a lead entity, federal agencies individually prioritize assistance to villages on the basis of their programs' criteria. These criteria do not necessarily ensure that the villages in greatest peril get the highest priority, and although the Corps has assessed erosion threats, there is no lead federal entity to prioritize and coordinate assistance using this information. In 2007, the Newtok Planning Group reported that the lack of designated federal and state lead entities to guide, coordinate, and fund assistance impeded village relocation efforts and created uncertainty regarding the fulfillment of environmental analysis requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act. In 2008, the state designated a lead agency for village relocation assistance, and federal, state, and village officials told GAO that a similar lead federal entity is needed. Lead authority could be provided to an existing agency or commission, or a new entity could be formed for this purpose.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To obtain a more complete understanding of the flooding threats facing Alaska Native villages, Congress may wish to consider directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an Alaska Baseline Flooding Assessment to augment the Corps' recently completed Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment.

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: To provide the state of Alaska with additional flexibility in its distribution of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant funds, Congress may wish to consider amending the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 to acknowledge the unique governmental structure in the state of Alaska and enable the 64 unincorporated Alaska Native villages in Alaska's unorganized borough to be eligible grant recipients for HUD Community Development Block Grant funds distributed through the state.

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Determining the means and extent of federal assistance to relocating Alaska Native villages is a policy decision that rests with Congress. We have provided information indicating that establishing a lead federal entity for prioritizing and guiding federal assistance to relocating villages may have benefits to the villages, to federal and state agencies, and to Congress. In its deliberations regarding assistance to relocating villages, Congress may wish to consider designating, or creating, a lead federal entity that could work in conjunction with the lead state agency to coordinate and oversee village relocation efforts.

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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