BETHEL, Alaska — Four of President Obama's cabinet members whirled through a pair of remote Alaska communities Wednesday to hear an earful about the state's novel needs and the borderline third-world conditions in some villages.
Obama administration officials have been on a whistle-stop tour of rural America since July 1, according to the White House. But they won't see anything else quite like village Alaska, where many towns have pockets of homes without running water or flush toilets, and families commute on snowmachines and four-wheelers instead of SUVs.
After arriving late for a hurried town hall meeting in Bethel, the state's largest rural hub, the secretaries visited the village of Hooper Bay on the Bering Sea coast before returning to Anchorage Wednesday night.
People here never forget a guest, Ray Watson chairman a non-profit that serves 56 villages in the region, told Obama's team before speakers outlined problems such as unemployment, soaring fuel costs and fishing allocations that villagers believe are badly hurting local economies. "Your visit reminds us of Sen. Ted Kennedy's visit in 1971, which resulted in improved housing for the region," he said.
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Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the trip in khakis and jeans, with Alaska Sen. Mark Begich playing tour guide.
"I've never been to Alaska and I was so excited this morning I couldn't sleep," Donovan told the crowd, perched on a wooden stool. "I wrote (my sons) a postcard this morning to say I was about to embark on one of the most incredible days of my life."
Then he announced millions in grants for rural housing.
Bethel is the hub of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, one of the poorest regions in Alaska. During the last census, one-third of adults weren't in the workforce, according to the state. The region's suicide rate is roughly five times the national average and police say nearly all their service calls are alcohol related -- even though the sale of liquor is banned inside the city limits.
The sprawling city is also a proud traditional Yup'ik community where families put food on their table by subsistence hunting, fishing and berry picking. The Eskimo language can be heard on any street corner and on the radio.
Before Wednesday's meeting, immersion school students sang "America the Beautiful" in Yup'ik and elders could pick up devices to listen to the talk translated from English.
Roughly 400 people showed up. The Calista Corp., which owns several rural newspapers, handed out 20-page pamphlets titled "Forgotten America" with a picture of a man emptying a honeybucket on the frozen tundra of Newtok.
"As you travel today you will see poverty and conditions comparable to that of third-world countries," said Mary Ann Mills, who introduced herself as member of the Kenaitze tribe, told Obama's team. She talked about $15 fuel prices in some villages and others that are uprooting their entire towns because of erosion. "We are subsistence people who rely on the earth for sustenance, only we can no longer hunt and fish."
National Education Association-Alaska President Barbara Angaiak, who's from Bethel, told the Cabinet members that as schools try to recruit more Alaska Native teachers, a piece of the No Child Left Behind Act has got to go. The clause requires demoralizing letters to be sent to parents when a teacher doesn't meet the definition of "highly qualified," she said.
"It is next to impossible for teachers and schools with as few as 10 students to become highly qualified in every subject."
Duncan, the education secretary, said he agreed that parts of the act are broken, defy reality and need to change.
"We need to stop labeling and stigmatizing schools and we need to stop labeling and stigmatizing teachers," he said.
Alaska's new governor, Sean Parnell, stopped by along with his own cabinet members. Ethan Berkowitz, a former state legislator who lost a bid for Congress last year, joined the meeting to push for $180 million in stimulus money to create the infrastructure for broadband Internet in rural Alaska.
The secretaries got a taste of the current coverage when they arrived in Bethel to find their Blackberries unable to connect.
They also arrived hours late. First, the flight was pushed back to avoid any chance of Bethel morning fog that had delayed flights the day before. Then a mechanical problem made everyone wait even longer and cleaving hours from the secretaries' trip, according to Begich's staff.
From Bethel, the visitors were off to Hooper Bay, one of Alaska's biggest villages with about 1,100 people. Residents live off subsistence and commercial fishing. During the winter, they're locked in by ice of the Bering Sea. The nearest hospital is a $420 plane ride away and the only way in this time of year is by air.
The secretaries stepped out of their twin-engine airplane and into a motorcade, Alaska Bush style. Instead of limos escorted by motorcycle cops, the secretaries mounted pickups, with staff banished to the open beds, accompanied by officers on four-wheelers.
They drove past a lagoon that collects raw sewage from a handful of public buildings -- the only buildings hooked to a sewerage system. Homes still use "honey buckets" in place of flush toilets.
HUD Secretary Donovan, the former head of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said he had seen homes without plumbing in Appalachia but doubted most Americans have. It was a reminder of the need to help people who are most vulnerable, he said.
"As a civilized society, we owe it to ourselves to help the neediest among us," he said.
Lack of sewerage was not the only housing problem. Many families have three generations living under one roof, said village tribal Chief David Bunyan. Eighty to 100 families need affordable homes, he said.
Hooper Bay was not without signs of hope. The cabinet secretaries toured the community's new school, built to replace a structure that burned in 2006. They saw the community's three new wind turbines that offset some of Hooper Bay's dependence on diesel fuel to produce electricity. Like other rural Alaska communities, Hooper Bay has no access to a power grid and must import diesel fuel to produce power.
The wind power project was built in part with Department of Agriculture money, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Alaska has not taken full advantage of his department's rural development projects since 2005 -- money that can be used for police and fire stations, health centers, day care facilities and other public projects.
"The fact that nothing has happened in a four-year period -- we've got to change that," he said.