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Quinault Indian Nation hits milestone in effort to move village uphill to safety

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Streets and sidewalks have appeared in a stretch of forest on the Washington coast in recent weeks. They represent the future of the Quinault Indian Nation. The tribe has spent a decade trying to move a village out of reach of rising seas and tsunamis. John Ryan from member station KUOW reports on their progress.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVE CRASHING)

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: I'm sitting on top of a seawall in the village of Taholah, Wash. It's too windy up here for standing. This is where the Pacific Ocean meets the Quinault Indian Reservation. One of the highest tides of the year, called a king tide, is hitting the seawall right now. Big waves are crashing into the seawall and occasionally depositing big driftwood logs on top and even into the backyards of tribal members' houses. Days like today also give a sneak peek of the future, as an ever-hotter climate causes global sea levels to rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

LIA FRENCHMAN: Hello.

RYAN: Lia?

FRENCHMAN: Yes.

RYAN: Hi. I'm John.

FRENCHMAN: Hi.

RYAN: Lia Frenchman lives on the backside of that seawall with her partner and two kids.

FRENCHMAN: It is inevitable that my street will be in the ocean at some point.

RYAN: Her home and others in the village of 800 people are perched on cinder blocks.

FRENCHMAN: Normally, what happens is at high tide in the winters, the waves will come over and my backyard will fill with water, and you'll see the water running under my house out into the street.

RYAN: When big waves hit the seawall, her home shakes.

FRENCHMAN: It just vibrates like a little mini earthquake constantly for a few hours.

RYAN: Should a big earthquake hit, most of the village could be inundated by a tsunami.

FRENCHMAN: My kids' schools are all - they're all sea level. They're all in the flooding zone.

RYAN: In December, the Quinault government reached a milestone in its long push to provide safe housing for its people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DOOR CLOSING)

RYAN: Tribal council member Ryan Hendricks showed me from his pickup truck.

RYAN HENDRICKS: You're looking at about nine acres of fresh development, with asphalt and sidewalks and lots of open space to start building some houses.

RYAN: The site is on higher ground, about a mile from the lower village.

HENDRICKS: It's a big project for such a small group of people to take on.

RYAN: Incomes on the Quinault Reservation are low, about half the national average. Housing is scarce. Tanya Eison-Pelach wanted to move back to Taholah after she finished grad school studying ocean policy.

TANYA EISON-PELACH: I do wish that I could have moved back into the home that I love so much, but I realized that that's not a place that I would feel safe raising a family.

RYAN: Heat-trapping pollution has raised the world's oceans by about seven inches over the past century.

EISON-PELACH: We're trying to solve a problem that we didn't create. We didn't create carbon emissions to any level of, like, the outside non-tribal world.

RYAN: The Quinault government has received millions in state and federal funds to relocate the village. It's spent millions of its own revenue from timber and casino operations. Now the tribe needs hundreds of millions more to get homes built in the new neighborhood.

GUY CAPOEMAN: It's been a long process.

RYAN: Guy Capoeman is president of the Quinault Indian Nation.

CAPOEMAN: We've had to do a lot of convincing to get some of our folks to agree that, you know, it's best to move up on the hill.

RYAN: Tribal members, including Capoeman, have mixed feelings about relocating away from the mouth of the Quinault River, the heart of Quinault culture. Capoeman says he hasn't decided whether he'll move away from the lower village.

CAPOEMAN: At my age - I'm 54 - the thought of taking on a home loan is something that is - you know, it's a big investment.

RYAN: Tanya Eison-Pelach says there's a generational divide. It's even fueled tense discussions in her own family about what to do with the family home.

EISON-PELACH: No, Mom, we shouldn't put $15,000 into this because it's going to be washed away.

RYAN: Lia Frenchman says she's looking forward to moving uphill and saving her family from the rising ocean. Still, she says she'll miss the sounds of the surf and eagles overhead.

FRENCHMAN: I hear them whistling all day. My heart just breaks when I think about not being near that anymore. I know it's, at the same time, not reasonable and not safe, but it's a hard thing to accept.

RYAN: The Biden administration has issued grants to tribes in five states that are looking to move to higher ground. Even for tribes like the Quinault that have safe, uphill space available nearby, it takes a lot of time and effort to move a village.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVE CRASHING)

RYAN: For NPR News, I'm John Ryan, in Taholah, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ryan
Year started with KUOW: 2009