It is really shameful that the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups would criticize a small life-saving gravel road from King Cove to Cold Bay. None of the people who oppose the road live in isolated King Cove, nor do they have to agonize about whether help will arrive in time to save lives. Our indigenous remote community is plagued with frequent stormy weather, hurricane-force winds and dense fog, which prevents travel by plane or boat at least 30 percent of the time. Critics, such as Lois Epstein, the author of an opinion piece opposing the road, live on Alaska’s road system. Other critics live in bigger cities, such as Washington, D.C., where road access to hospitals for emergency medical care is taken for granted.
I know first-hand what it’s like to be in danger of losing my life and that of my unborn daughter’s. Four years ago, I went into early labor, despite my plan to travel to Anchorage well ahead of my due date. The wind was howling, preventing air ambulances from landing in our community. The health care team at our remote clinic is unable to perform caesarian sections or handle significant trauma and life-threatening medical problems. Thank goodness for the brave Coast Guard personnel, who risked their lives to rescue me. Thanks to them, I’m alive and so is my beautiful four-year-old daughter, Sunnie Rae. However, it isn’t the Coast Guard’s job to rescue pregnant women. They have their hands full with maritime rescues.
The Aleut people have been in the King Cove/Izembek area for more than 4,000 years. Our mostly Aleut community of King Cove has been fighting for more than three decades to get safe, reliable access to Cold Bay’s all-weather airport, with its 10,000-foot paved runway, which as loyal Americans, we helped build during World War II. On a clear day, we can see Cold Bay from King Cove. The solution is right there. That airport is the regional air transportation hub. Once there, we’re able to access emergency medical help in Anchorage, 600 miles away, just like any other American.
We are so grateful for the support from the Trump Administration, the Alaska Delegation, Gov. Bill Walker, the Alaska Legislature, the National Congress of American Indians and AFN. They understand that this road is about saving lives. A road would allow us to get to Cold Bay in about 90 minutes rather than waiting for the weather to clear so we can fly there or be forced into a dangerous 2.5-hour boat ride in terrible weather.
Our critics say a storm would make the road impassable for 36 to 96 hours. That’s nonsense! First of all, the Izembek area, which consists of mostly flat land with a few rolling hills, gets very little snow in the winter. Any snow that does fall, doesn’t stick around for long either because of our moderate temperatures or our fierce winds. Our maintenance crews in King Cove do an excellent job of clearing our roads. DOT does an exceptional job of keeping roads clear on the Cold Bay side.
There is no hidden agenda here, such as hauling fish on the road, as our opponents have argued. Peter Pan Seafoods, located in King Cove, has stated that the cannery has no interest in the road. The argument that this is about promoting a road for commercial interests is just propaganda.
The road is about saving lives, pure and simple. Since President Barack Obama’s interior secretary, Sally Jewell, denied our road in 2013, there have been 63 medevacs. Seventeen of those were conducted by the Coast Guard at extreme risk to their lives as well as ours! My medevac story is just one of many. When I look into Sunnie Rae’s eyes, I know how close I came to losing her. As a mother, I would do anything for my children. Any parent would. My greatest hope for my little girl and for my two older daughters is that they grow up to be healthy and happy individuals. For that reason, I won’t stop fighting for this life-saving road, nor will anyone living in King Cove. It’s just too important.
• Etta Kuzakin is the president of the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove. She is also a lifelong resident of King Cove.