Obama's Cabinet secretaries tour Alaska

August 13, 2009 9:46:51 AM PDT
On President Barack Obama's promise to pay attention to the problems of rural America, four of his Cabinet secretaries have traveled to parts of Alaska that couldn't get much more rural. Among their stops Wednesday was Hooper Bay, population 1,160, about 500 miles from Anchorage on Alaska's western edge. During the winter, residents are 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 of Energy, Education, Agriculture and Housing & Urban Development stepped out of their twin-engine airplane and into an Alaska Bush-style motorcade of pickups, with staff banished to the truck's open beds and accompanying officers on four-wheelers.

The motorcade drove by homes with moose antlers mounted over doorways, and 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.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun 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 that "as a civilized society, we owe it to ourselves to help the neediest among us," he said.

The Cabinet secretaries toured 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.

"Cutting an energy bill by a factor of two here means a lot more than cutting an energy bill by a factor of two in the Lower 48," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.

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 agency's funding - money that can be used for police and fire stations, health centers, day care facilities and other public projects - since 2005.

"The fact that nothing has happened in a four-year period - we've got to change that," he said.

At regional transportation hub Bethel, with more than 5,600 residents, Ray Watson, a Bethel tribal chairman, thanked the federal officials for their visit. In 1971, a visit by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy brought an influx of money to replace substandard housing.

"Please give our regards to President Obama," Watson told the secretaries.