Homes near Akiak’s eroding riverbank need to move. But some people choose to stay.

Arnold Williams’ home next to the eroded riverbank. (Photo by Greg Kim/KYUK)

Akiak lost a mile-long stretch of riverbank to erosion last month. Six houses are now within 100 feet of the riverbank and need to be moved as soon as possible. But some people don’t want to move.

The entire riverbank in Akiak looks like it’s in surgery. Tarps, ropes and metal poles try to hold the land together, but it’s like bandaging a severed limb. Clumps of mud and chunks of permafrost line the edge of the Kuskokwim River, showing that the wound is still fresh. In one section of the bank, the river has carved a particularly big bite out of the land. The river is 20 feet away from swallowing one of the homes.

Akiak City Administrator David Gilila remembers the day all this happened.

“My son came out and said, ‘Dad, go and look at Uncle Pete’s bank.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ He said, ‘It goes up to his house,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘No, it can’t be. I just walked through it yesterday.’ I went out, and it was, ‘Wuh-oh.’”

David Gilila has been working to get funding to move the homes close to the river. The closest one belongs to his brother, Peter Gilila, but he’s not so eager to move. He said that he has one big condition: “As long as water and sewer are connected. If not, I’m staying. I don’t want to go back to the honey bucket.”

Akiak got running water and sewer hooked up in 2012. Before that, people used honey buckets and hauled water from the  river. Since then, things have changed.

“The river is unusable now, too contaminated,” Peter Gilila said. “For the health of my grandchildren and those living in the house, I’d like to continue to have the running water.”

Just moving the house will cost almost $100,000. Adding water, sewer, roads and electricity will be several times the cost of the initial move.

Tribal Administrator Sheila Carl hopes that they can get all the money this year, but water and sewer might be added after a year or two. She’s worried about what might happen if people wait too long to move their homes.

“Before anyone could react, a whole smokehouse just kinda rolled into the river,” Carl remembered. “Are they just gonna let their house roll into the river?”

“If it comes to that, yes,” Peter Gilila responded to that question. He’s aware of the risks, and he’s prepared to deal with them as they come.

“But like I say, it’s not the end of the world there,” Peter Gilila said. “Because I can rebuild. And that’s what we do. That’s what we’ve always been doing: rebuilding. This is not a new situation for me.”

“I wouldn’t move either,” said his brother, David Gilila. “That’s where we grew up, right next to it, the old house we grew up in. That’s where we grew up.”

Not everybody along the riverbank wants to wait, though.

“I’m kinda wanting water and sewer at the same time too, alright?” said Arnold Williams, who lives a few houses down from Peter. “I don’t wanna lose my house, you know? This is what my uncle worked hard to give me. I wouldn’t want him to do all that work for nothing, to see it going down the river.”

Williams wants to move as soon as he can. Whereas Peter Gilila has found peace with the river, Williams is scared.

“I never experienced that much land coming off the ground ever before in my life that fast,” Williams said. “It freaked me out when I saw that happening. We couldn’t even do nothing about it.”

Williams now works on the riverbank, moving sandbags, securing tarps. He says he likes that work. It gives him a little control over his situation, and he tells his neighbors they should take control of theirs.

“You wanna save your family? You wanna save your house? Move it,” Williams said.

Akiak is working to put together its hazard mitigation plan and submit it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, by September. That will make them eligible for the increased disaster funding the state of Alaska received because of the earthquake near Anchorage last year.

They hope to move the houses this year — water, sewer, pipes and all.

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