Once again, it’s Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) week over on BNET and I’ve been digging in to the applications for this year’s federal grants. There’s one in particular that stands out, and I decided to write about it over here on Cranky because it’s just too awesome. The tiny town of Diomede in Alaska wants $1.25 million to sustain weekly helicopter service to Nome. This is an incredible story about one of the most remote places in the entire United States.
Never heard of Diomede? There’s no reason you should have heard of it. Its 117 residents (down from 143 just two years ago) live on the edge of the barren, steep-sloped rocky island of Little Diomede which is 25 miles off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Strait. Not cool enough? Unlike Sarah Palin, the residents of Diomede actually can see Russia from their houses. Russia is only two miles away on Big Diomede. The International Dateline runs right in between, so they can literally see tomorrow. Amazing, right? Here’s the map:
But the location only tells half the story. The residents on this island are primarily natives and very little cash exchanges hands. It’s a subsistence economy where residents rely on hunting and fishing for the most part. They’ve lived there for thousands of years and at one point, used to freely connect with their now-Russian relatives across the strait on a regular basis. The Russians turned Big Diomede into a military installation and the residents there were moved to the mainland, so the Little Diomede people no longer see their kin. This truly is the most isolated place imaginable in the US.
The island itself is just a big rock (2.8 sq miles) with steep cliffs that juts out from the water. There is no running water (except in the school), no sewer, and not even roads. So why would you live there? Because your family has lived there for ages. It’s home. Here’s a shot of the island in winter, or summer, or who the heck knows. . . .
Do I even need to explain that an airport doesn’t exist here? Even if it did, the weather is so frequently awful with high winds and low clouds that flights are adventurous at best. But the people on this island still need to live and as part of the US, need to be connected in to the country. That happens today via a weekly helicopter flight that brings the mail in, when the weather is good. Evergreen Helicopters used to use a larger helicopter but it had problems and now the company uses one that doesn’t carry passengers. So how do people get on and off the island?
If it’s an emergency, the Coast Guard or Alaska National Guard can come evacuate someone 130 miles away to the nearest hospital in Nome, but other than that, it’s almost all by boat. But even that’s problematic. The crossing is treacherous and there is no harbor on Diomede so people have to wait for hours at times just to get on and off a boat. What kind of boats do they use? As one local put it, “Our community only has one skin boat now, but the skin is not very good. We have to replace the old skin with new walrus hide.”
In the winter, things are a bit different. When the sea freezes over, there are usually a couple of months a year when they can build an ice runway to get 9 seat airplanes in and out a couple of times. But this last year, the ice never got thick enough so no runway was built. You can see why Diomede is looking for some help here.
But what kind of help could a SCASD grant provide? Well, as mentioned, there is a heliport on the island and Diomede wants a weekly flight to Nome on a four-seat helicopter to reconnect it with the rest of the world. It needs $1.25 million over three years to make this happen. The city isn’t eligible for the traditional Essential Air Service program but it is hopeful to get into a program that will provide funds through an alternative EAS subsidy after the SCASD funds dry up.
I’ve been very critical of the EAS program in the past, but this seems like a case where it should be put to work. There is no other option for Diomede, and since it’s part of the US, we should be doing what we can to re-connect them with the rest of the country. A single weekly helicopter flight hardly seems excessive. If SCASD is the only way to make that happen at this point, then it’s what we have to do. Yes, I realize the subsidy is about $3,500 per resident per year, but this is one case where I support the expense.