The Fine Print
When she went into premature labor last year, getting to the hospital quickly was a matter of life and death for Etta Kuzakin and her unborn child.
But Kuzakin was delayed by gusty winds and the fact that there is no road from her home in the remote Alaskan village of King Cove to the nearby town of Cold Bay, where an all-weather airport makes emergency flights to Anchorage.
The residents of King Cove would like to build a one-lane gravel road that would provide a reliable route to the Cold Bay airport, but the federal government is blocking the project. A group of locals came to Washington to make their case.
“I had to have the Coast Guard come in and get me … Had they not come in and get me, more than likely, both me and my daughter wouldn't be here,” Kuzakin told “The Fine Print,” tearing up as she recounted the story. “I have two older children that I couldn't tell anything to, because you don't want to have to tell your kids that mom may not be coming back.”
Kuzakin and her 1-year-old daughter, Sunnie Rae, were rescued by the Coast Guard and made it to the hospital in time for a successful cesarean section, but not all stories have a happy ending. There have been 19 deaths in the last two decades, officials say, because people weren’t able to get a medevac flight.
“There's stories of babies being born on crab boats on a galley table and using a shoebox as an incubator,” said Della Trumble, a spokeswoman for the King Cove Corporation. “There are stories of elderly patients, another lady with a heart problem, dying on the dock in Cold Bay.”
While King Cove can be reached by boat or plane when weather cooperates, the area is prone to bad weather. In those times, the only way out of King Cove for people needing urgent medical attention is by a Coast Guard medevac helicopter.
“Right now the taxpayers are on the hook,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Because every Coast Guard medevac of which there have been five this year is at a minimum $210,000 out of your taxpayer dollars.”
But unlike the famed Alaskan bridge to nowhere, this 11 mile stretch of gravel road would not use any federal dollars to be built. The state has agreed to swap other protected lands for the road, which would be paid for by the town and state.
Murkowski welcomed a group of King Cove residents to Washington to make the case that the road should be built. The political fight has been brewing for more than two decades. The road project was passed by Congress, but the final say goes to the Interior Department.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has rejected the road project, saying it would cross through a portion of the Izembek National Wildlife refuge, which is a protected land.
“We need suggestions from the people that live in the area on what alternatives would be potentially viable for them if a road is, does not go through,” Jewell said during a Congressional hearing, attended by King Cove residents Wednesday. “I also know that there are many villages in Alaska that are a long way away from medical care and this is clearly an example of that, being 600 miles from Anchorage.”
The residents of King Cove dispute the argument that the road would damage wildlife.
“We do protect the habitat and the birds,” Kuzakin said. “This is our culture. We have lived there for thousands of years and we will continue to live there for thousands of years. We will respect as we were taught and as we teach our children. … We have never hurt any area that we are in. and a one-lane road isn't going to either.”
For more about the proposed road for King Cove, including what Murkowski said is her hope after Jewell denied the project, check out this episode of “The Fine Print.”
ABC News’ Arlette Saenz, Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Nicholas Barber, Wayne Boyd and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.