Rasmuson Foundation President Diane Kaplan recently visited the Aleutian Island community of Adak. Once a community that came into existence to support a military base during World War II, it is now a community of 100 trying to find a future. Read more about Diane's visit in today's post.
Located half way down the Aleutian chain, a three-hour Alaska Airlines jet ride from Anchorage, Adak appears after a long line of narrow islands and volcanoes. The physical beauty of its surroundings are breathtaking. Lush, green, soft, mountainous tundra surrounded by blue, blue water. Wildlife is abundant; Adak is on every birder’s bucket list and the caribou hunting is a draw.
My escorts for this visit were Clem Tillion, Alaska’s 87-year old fish czar, former Senate President, Halibut Cove founder and true Alaska character, and his daughter, Dr. Martha Cotten, a Southcentral Foundation physician who serves as medical director for the Eastern Aleutians Tribes clinics as well as in the South Peninsula Hospital E.R.
I’d always wanted to see Adak. Once a community of 6,000 that came into existence to support a military base during World War II, it is now a community of 100 trying to find a future.
Signs of the military history of this place are everywhere, from the bunkers that dot every part of the island road system to the former admiral’s quarters up on Bering Hill.
The two are regular visitors to the island and well-known to and liked by the locals. Clem has been assisting the islanders in their effort to attract private investment. Adak has huge assets and opportunities but challenges just as great. With the base closing in 2002, most of the 6,000 residents departed. The 100 remaining residents are seeking a future that takes advantage of the island’s abundant natural resources, fishing boat friendly geography, and substantial infrastructure–including airport facilities that support twice weekly Alaska Airlines jet service, an Icicle Seafoods processing plant and some 1,000 units of housing, government and commercial buildings. While nicely kept up residential properties dot the landscape, the majority of the buildings have been damaged by weather, climate, neglect or vandalism. Even the former middle/senior high school, which now houses classrooms for all of the island’s 20+ school kids as well as the community clinic, library, pool, church, and city offices, is badly damaged in areas, mostly freezing cold (even on a sunny August day) and underutilized. Despite heroic efforts by city manager Layton Lockett to fix up the gym and get the pool filled, the inability to heat the facilities due to the high cost of energy stymies his efforts. There is particular concern expressed by residents about the deterioration of the historic church next to the barracks. At the clinic, Community Health Aide Chris Diaz awaits the arrival of another provider so he can get some much needed relief. His job is stressful and challenging; as the only resident medical provider, he has to be prepared to respond to everything from common colds to extreme trauma at a moment’s notice. During our stay, an injured fishing boat crew member was to be met at the dock. Fortunately for all concerned, Dr. Martha Cotten was on-Island to help treat the patient.
In 2004, the island was transferred to the Aleut Corporation, one of the 13 Alaska Native regional corporations created under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. What happens in the next couple of years will likely determine Adak’s future. Will Shell come in to start exploring? Will Alaska Airlines continue to serve the community with jet service? Will a more affordable source of energy be secured to make commercial development, community facilities and residential life sustainable?