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Shishmaref Inter-Agency Planning Work Group


Meeting Agendas and Summaries Reports and Studies DCRA's Community Resilience Programs


Shishmaref is a traditional Inupiat village with a fishing and subsistence lifestyle. The community is located on Sarichef Island, a barrier island approximately 0.25 mile wide and about 3 miles long, but only one-third of the island is developable. The island was formed by frozen sandy soils, which are susceptible to significant erosion. The primary erosion hazards are wave and slough erosion, sea ice gouging, and slumping resulting from melting permafrost. The entire community is susceptible to erosion, and the underlying permafrost is melting. Over the past 20 years, Shishmaref has experienced several erosive storms. For example, during a storm in October 1997, 30 feet of the north shore was eroded. As a result, 14 homes and the National Guard Armory were forced to relocate. According to the local hazard mitigation plan, "the effects of climate change are expected to add to natural hazards including flooding in coastal areas. As sea level rises and the offshore ice pack retreats, more coastal flooding can be expected."

The community voted to relocate in May 1973 and again in July 2002. While the community has pursued relocation since then, several events have caused the relocation efforts to lose momentum (NRCS 2003). The relocation site proposed in the 1970s was determined to be on permafrost-rich ground and unsuitable for development. A school built in 1977 was an important infrastructure investment in the community that they did not want to abandon. In 2016, Shishmaref completed a study to identify a suitable site for relocation. In an election held that summer, a majority of community residents voted to relocate to two potential sites. Later, the West Tin Creek Hills site was selected.

Strategic Management Planning

From 2014 to 2016, Shishmaref was engaged in a community planning process with the Division of Community and Regional Affairs (DCRA) to develop the Shishmaref Strategic Management Plan which provides a holistic approach for adapting to environmental threats and increasing community resilience to climate impacts and natural hazards. As part of the planning process, an Inter-Agency Planning Work Group was organized to serve as a vehicle for coordinating resources and technical assistance to Shishmaref from state and federal agencies, regional organizations and local governments.

graphic of Shishmaref's Strategic Focus Area Diagram
Click to view larger version of the Shishmaref's Strategic Focus Area Diagram

The Shishmaref's Strategic Management Plan is organized by Strategic Focus Areas (see diagram, right) . Within each focus area, imminent and critical action items are identified first, followed by short-, medium-, and long-term action items. For each action item, the following details were identified:

  • Responsible Party: Which agency or organization has the primary responsibility for championing the action?
  • Potential Partners/Coordination: What entities may be willing to partner with the responsible party and how can the partnership be coordinated?
  • Timeframe for Implementation: When is the action item needed?
  • Estimated Cost: What is the planning level cost estimate(when available)?
  • Current Status: What is the current status of the project?
  • Reference: What is the source of the action item, if it originated from another community plan?

The action items were identified during the first year of community planning in the community and during the first two Interagency Planning Work Group Meetings. Completing these action items does not automatically mean Shishmaref is a resilient community; resilience is a process of continual improvement.

Strategic Actions

Shishmaref prioritized Strategic Actions based on community need:

  • Imminent Actions are those actions the community needs in place today to protect people from harm during a hazard event.
  • Critical Actions are those action items that, if not completed in 5 years, will result in a negative impact on community safety. Implementation of critical actions should be undertaken immediately with a goal of completing or substantially completing the action within 5 years. The identified critical actions are actions that are especially important for increasing community resiliency now.
  • Short Term Actions are those action items that can be realistically completed in 0-5 years
  • Medium Term Actions are those action items that can be realistically completed in 6-10 years
  • Long Term Actions action items that will take 11 years or more to complete

The current focus of the Shishmaref Inter-Agency Planning Work Group is to help Shishmaref implement the Imminent and Critical Actions from the Strategic Management Plan .

Decision Regarding Relocation: Shishmaref recently completed a site feasibility study and now must decide if they will relocate to one of the three potential sites or protect in place for the long-term survival of the community. The community is scheduled to vote on this issue in summer 2016. The results of this vote will provide a clear vision of Shishmaref’s future so the community can start concentrating on implementing their preferred choice. DCRA provided a grant to Shishmaref to conduct the Shishmaref Relocation Site Feasibility Study. This project was completed in 2016 and informed the community's decision to hold a special election asking residents if they should develop a new community at two alternate relocation sites or remain in place. In the election, held August 16, 2016, a majority of voters elected to move. Later that year, a single relocation site, West Tin Creek Hills, was selected by the community. The community has initiated some first steps in the relocation planning process.
Emergency Drills and Exercises: Emergency drills and exercises provide an opportunity to practice aspects of an emergency plan, allowing people to become familiar with what is expected of them during an emergency and help identify whether the plan meets community needs or if changes need to be made. The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management traveled to Shishmaref to conduct a tabletop exercise on developing a Small Community Emergency Response Plan (SCERP).
Water and Sewer Upgrades: The majority of homes in Shishmaref rely on hauling water from the washeteria and honey buckets. Water and sewer upgrades were considered critical by the community to improve their quality of life and public health. Based on community needs, three priority water and sewer upgrades have been identified: improved delivery of drinking water and sewage disposal services, increased water supply, and protection of the sewage lagoon. Improving the delivery of drinking water and sewage disposal services does not mean installing a piped water and sewer system. Globally, a wide variety of innovative decentralized water and sewer systems have been developed that, if implemented, could meet Shishmaref’s basic sanitation needs. Shishmaref’s existing water supply and storage tanks are in poor condition and do not have capacity to meet community needs. Shishmaref sometimes has to ration water, which has a negative health impact. Additional water storage would allow residents to better meet their needs and reduce sanitation-related illnesses. Shishmaref’s sewage lagoon is vulnerable to storm surge and erosion. A breach of the sewage lagoon would present a substantial health risk; it needs to be protected. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium is assisting Shishmaref with upgrades to the community water and sewer systems.
Evacuation Center: One of the biggest concerns in Shishmaref is having a safe place to be during storms. The school and church serve as evacuation shelters; however, they may not be large enough to house everyone. They may also be impacted during extreme storms. The church also does not have running water, emergency supplies, and other necessities, which limits its Shishmaref Strategic Management Plan usefulness as an emergency shelter. Residents need an evacuation center so they have a safe place to use during and after a storm or other emergency. The Denali Commission is funding the development of back-up power for Shishmaref's evacuation center at the church.
Coastal Flooding Analysis: A coastal flooding analysis will identify the likelihood and severity of coastal flooding in Shishmaref. The results of the analysis will help Shishmaref with future planning efforts, studies, and projects. The Denali Commission is coordinating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fund the coastal flood analysis.
Seawall – Phases 3 and 4: The remaining phases of the seawall need to be constructed to protect the northern edge and southwest portion of Shishmaref. The Denali Commission is funding the design of the revetment.
Improve Housing: Access to safe, quality, and affordable housing is vital for any community. Community residents have expressed a need to improve the housing in Shishmaref to address overcrowding, energy efficiency, affordability, and poor structural conditions.
Traditional Knowledge: Alaska Natives have a unique understanding of the connections between people and their environment. Shishmaref should work with its partner agencies to ensure that traditional knowledge is not discounted. Rather, Shishmaref needs to encourage the blending of traditional knowledge and western science so that all organizations can develop a better understanding of climate change and community impacts.
Leadership Development: Leaders must have the foresight to see potential challenges, plan for the future, and be involved in decision-making processes on behalf of the community. Shishmaref has expressed the need for more leadership development opportunities to ensure future community leaders have the necessary skills to work with community residents, government agencies, and others to implement their vision of a resilient Shishmaref.
Improve Government-to-Government Relations: Improving government-to-government relations will help elicit trust among different government levels—tribal council, city, regional, and state—as well as various state agencies. Continued interaction and correspondence will help ensure that everyone is on the same page with the same ideas, and no relationships are destroyed through the process.

Contact for More Information

Sally Russell Cox
Division of Community and Regional Affairs
Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development
550 West 7th Avenue, Suite 1650
Anchorage, AK 99501
Phone: (907) 269-4588
FAX: (907) 269-4563

Revised 2/12/2024