U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Meets with Tribal, Community Leaders and Residents in King Cove, AK
April 21, 2022
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, accompanied by U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, traveled to remote King Cove, Alaska yesterday to learn more about the need for a land exchange and ultimately a small gravel road leading to the Cold Bay Airport. That road corridor, if approved, would pass through a tiny portion of the Izembek Refuge, to the nearby all-weather Cold Bay Airport, which has a paved 10,000-foot long runway. Governor Mike Dunleavy also traveled to King Cove for the same purpose.
“We’re not asking for a lot. We’re just asking for the federal government to care about our people enough to permit a dirt road across our ancestral land so that we can get our patients over to a medevac plane (in nearby Cold Bay, the hub airport in the Aleutian Islands, about 25 miles away),” King Cove community health-aide practitioner Bonita Babcock told U.S. Secretary Deb Haaland during her visit.
King Cove is often plagued with stormy weather, including hurricane-force winds and dense fog, preventing plane and boat travel about 30% of the time. During urgent medical evacuations, patients must be stabilized at the King Cove Clinic until either an air ambulance plane or the U.S. Coast Guard can travel to the isolated community.
The group toured the health clinic and visited with medical providers to learn more about medevac challenges experienced in King Cove.
Babcock, shared a story about a patient whose oxygen levels had dropped to concerning levels. She, the physician’s assistant and other health care providers checked vitals, gave the patient steroids and conducted lab tests while contacting an emergency room doctor from an Anchorage-based hospital. The patient was stable for a while, but later took a turn for the worse. Meanwhile, high winds prevented an air ambulance from getting into King Cove, so it waited in Cold Bay. The clinic contacted the Coast Guard for help. The clinic has no resident doctor and must rely on its health providers during these difficult, life-threatening emergencies.
“We were doing everything we could and trying to get a shockable rhythm, but nothing was working,” Babcock said. “We were begging the patient to try and stay with us.”
The Coast Guard was ½ hour away. Finally, the physician’s assistant, while on the phone with the ER doctor, said it was time to call it (declare the patient deceased).
“I’m thinking, No! All the hours that went by while we were waiting. We did everything we could, but this happens more often than you hear about. We’re losing our people over the sake of a few miles of road. If we could just do this in a more humane, calmer way and put them in the back of a transport vehicle (ambulance), and drive them over to Cold Bay, it would mean the world to us.”
Babcock told Secretary Haaland that her visit was a very big deal.
“Please take our feelings and know that this is coming from the bottom or our hearts. We’re doing our best to serve our patients, but we just need a little help,” she said.
Etta Kuzakin, President of the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, shared her story of a traumatic medevac that occurred in 2013 while she was pregnant with her youngest daughter. She had gone into premature labor during stormy weather and was stabilized at the clinic while waiting for an air ambulance to come.
“I remember telling the physician’s assistant that if anything was to happen to me, you need to save my baby’s life first,” she said. “These are the choices we have to make.”
After making numerous attempts to contact an air ambulance during stormy weather, the clinic was able to reach Coast Guard. Finally, a helicopter coming from Kodiak arrived and transported Kuzakin to the hospital in Anchorage. Thirty minutes later, her daughter, Sunnie Rae, was born.
“I have a super, wonderful story to tell because my daughter’s here,” she said, “but I fear that if we don’t do something soon, these stories aren’t going to be as happy as mine. “When I look at her, I see our youth and the future of our Aleut people. We’re just asking for the safety of a road for our kids and our community.”
The group also visited the Senior Elder Center where residents shared their heartfelt stories of harrowing medevac situations.
King Cove Mayor Warren Wilson shared a story about his 80-year-old mother who was medevaced after contracting cellulitis. Because air ambulance planes are unable to land at the King Cove airport after dark, the Coast Guard was called and transported her to Cold Bay. A few hours later, an air ambulance plane arrived and flew her to an Anchorage hospital.
“It’s difficult for an elder to endure eight hours of flying while waiting to get into Anchorage. Meanwhile, her infection was getting worse,” he said.
Mayor Wilson’s mother fully recovery following her care at an Anchorage hospital.
Aleutians East Borough Alvin Osterback said he knows what it’s like to have a loved one medevaced from King Cove. In 1982, he and his family were in town to celebrate the birthday of his one year-old son. However, later in the evening, the baby developed a temperature of 104 degrees, so they took him to the clinic.
“They weren’t really sure why his temperature was as high as it was,” he said. “They kept putting cold water on him all night to get his temperature down.”
At daybreak, the clinic called an air taxi in Sand Point to medevac the baby and his family to Anchorage.
“Luckily, he didn’t have spinal meningitis,” Mayor Osterback said, “but if the road had been there at that time, we could have driven over to Cold Bay to get him out sooner.”
Belkofski Tribal President Lynn Farr shared her story about trying to get back home after spending 10 days in an Anchorage hospital with her 4 month-old son, who had RSV. When she and her baby flew back to Cold Bay, the wind was blowing hard, and planes weren’t flying into King Cove. A friend in Cold Bay arranged for her and her son to get on a tender boat that had stopped at the Cold Bay Dock.
“The weather was horrible,” she said. “The guys were on deck and they said wait for the swell. ‘When this boat comes up, hand me the baby’. The dock is very long and very scary. That’s not the first time I had to hand my baby over that dock, and then climb down the (20 foot-high) ladder. That’s just what we have to deal with to get in and out of here.”
Aleut Corporation President & CEO Skoey Vergen said when Congress created the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, the Unangan people were not given a voice in that process.
“It shut down the possibility of a road,” he said. “It’s unjust, and that needs to be remedied.”
Vergen mentioned that Secretary Haaland heard from environmental, wildlife and birding groups during her visit to Anchorage.
“But those folks live there. These folks live here,” he said. “The inability to have medical transport can affect them (King Cove residents) at any time, and it’s traumatizing and horrifying.”
While in King Cove, the visiting group toured the school where they were treated to performances by the King Cove Unangan (Aleut) Dancers (Agdaagum Ax^aasniikangin). Afterwards, Dustin Newman, Cultural Bearer for the event and Youth Services Coordinator for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, conducted an ancestral naming ceremony. Secretary Haaland was named Agdaagum Ax^aasniikangin (translation: Mother Bear). She became emotional during the ceremony and spoke about it at the King Cove Senior Elder Center.
“I just wanted to thank you so much for your heartfelt words,” she said. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to hear from all of you directly. I know it’s difficult to talk about things that have hurt you in the past. I understand that,” she said. “I’ve had a wonderful time visiting with all of you and seeing the kids dance for us. That was really lovely. I got a name, which is a tremendous honor to me.”
Secretary Haaland said she looks forward to visiting King Cove sometime in the near future.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski said officials at the federal and state level take the obligation to care for the health and safety of residents very seriously.
“You are a long ways from Washington, D.C., but you are of no less value than anybody else in America,” she said. “Anyone else in America would have the ability to have a small, connector road, linking them to safety. Thank you for speaking from your heart and for sharing the best of King Cove with our very important visitor.”
“It sure would be a big help to get your support to finish this project,” Aleutians East Borough Mayor Osterback told the Secretary.
“We need your help to take this home,” Vergen said. “Take this across the finish line. Let’s get it done.”
During the visit, Governor Mike Dunleavy said it was an honor to be in the community and learn more about this issue.
“We look forward to having the Secretary come back (in the future) and land in Cold Bay and then drive to King Cove on the road,” he added.
The Aleut people have lived in King Cove for more than four-thousand years. For the past four decades, King Cove tribal and community leaders have been advocating for safe, dependable ground access for medical evacuations and an improved quality of life.
The health clinic has no full-time doctor and is unable to handle major heart and respiratory conditions, trauma or childbirth. Patients must travel 625 miles away to Anchorage, via the Cold Bay Airport, to obtain a higher level of care. At times when stormy weather prevents air ambulance companies from flying into King Cove, the Coast Guard, if available, is called upon to assist with medevacs. The proposed land exchange would ultimately lead to a road corridor through the Izembek Refuge so King Cove residents could access medical evacuation flights in the nearby community of Cold Bay, which has the area’s only jet-accessible runway.
The communities of King Cove and Cold Bay were separated in 1980 when President Carter – without consulting local residents – created the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. King Cove’s roughly 1,000 residents have been trying to reestablish access ever since. In the ensuing years, 18 deaths have been associated with the lack of land access, either due to plane crashes or an inability to reach timely medical treatment. Since 2013, there have been 175 medevacs from King Cove to Anchorage, Alaska where three major hospitals are located.