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Eroding Alaska village progresses on relocation

By Rachel D'oro
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) October 2011

Tony Tommy has lived in the tiny Alaska Native village of Newtok all of his 59 years, but the erosion there has gotten so bad, he can’t wait to see the flood-prone community dismantled and parts of it moved to higher ground nine miles across a vast, raging river.

Tommy, who works in the village store, remembers when the Ninglick River was far away and the Newtok River flowed deeply decades ago. Now the Ninglick is just minutes away, creeping ever closer to homes in the Yupik Eskimo community of 350 people.

The smaller Newtok is now shallow and stagnant. The subsurface permafrost of the land is thawing and sinking, knocking homes out of alignment and making obstacle courses of the boardwalks running over the wetland setting.

Residents feel trapped there, said Tommy, who looks forward to the day the relocation to the new site at a place called Mertarvik is complete. The work began there in 2009, and already residents of one of Alaska’s most eroded villages can see the faint outlines of their future community going up.

“It’s nice and clean,” Tommy said of the new site. “Plus there’s good running water, spring water, and it’s real nice and clear and cold.”

Newtok, near Alaska’s storm-battered western coast, is among the most vulnerable of scores of villages in the state affected by erosion and flooding blamed in part on rising temperatures.

Driven by the Ninglick River’s relentless encroachment, Newtok is making steady progress in the seemingly impossible task of relocating from one remote spot to another, particularly with only short-term federal and state funding – and no long-term funding strategy in place. There are no roads to ease the process, either. Materials, equipment and crews have to be barged to the new site or carried by boat, and outside work crews are sometimes delivered by helicopter. 

Other imperiled villages are planning relocations but only Newtok, 480 miles west of Anchorage, has begun the actual physical labor.

Looking across the river from his crumbling village, tribal administrator Stanley Tom can see the results of Newtok’s multiagency partnership that also includes the military, which is providing onsite muscle as part of a training program.

“I feel so great,” Tom told The Associated Press. “The new village site is getting visible every year, and right now we can see houses. It’s really cool.”

Much of the groundwork has been laid at Mertarvik – a barge landing, a rock quarry, a road leading to the beginnings of a planned evacuation center that later will become a community center and tribal offices. Three homes were built there last year, another three are being built by locals who spent more than four months learning construction skills at a technical school in the northwest Alaska town of Kotzebue. The goal is to finish the exterior construction of the newer homes, so workers can continue the job in winter.

Then the first occupants can begin pioneering the relocation to show the agencies they’re serious and ultimately prompt the need for services such as a school, airport and post office. Tom said 22 of the 63 homes in Newtok have been deemed moveable. The rest of the homes at Mertarvik will have to be built, as funding allows.

Residents are motivated by a sense of urgency. The Ninglick River is swallowing 25- to- 70 feet of bank a year just south of the village, and could reach the closest homes in a few years or much sooner, Tom said. The sinking permafrost subjects the area to flooding from intensifying storms.

Mertarvik, on nearby Nelson Island to the south, is located higher up on tundra-covered bedrock, said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner and facilitator of a group of federal and state agencies, as well as tribal organizations, involved in the relocation. Newtok completed a federal land trade in 2004 for the new site, whose name means “getting water from the stream” in Yupik.

“It’s a volcanically formed island,” Cox said. “They’ll never have the erosion problem of the current site.”

Funding, however, remains a huge challenge for the relocation effort, estimated in a 2006 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cost between $80 million and $130 million, or roughly $228,000 to $371,000 per resident. All along it’s been a project full of potential stops and starts, with funding sought each year from various government pockets, said Mike Coffey, maintenance and operations chief with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, a major player in the Newtok partnership.

“There are still lots of unanswered questions as we move forward,” Coffey said of the unprecedented endeavor. “Where else in the United States or in the world are you relocating an entire community? And here we’re starting from scratch.”

Part of the money solution may come from the rock quarry, where 100,000 yards of material was blasted over the summer with help from the Air Force. The quarry will mean significant savings for building local roads and possible airport and harbor developments. Last year rocks had to be barged in at enormous cost, Coffey said.

Tom is hoping to turn the rock quarry into a commercial venture for the community, selling the building material to neighboring villages in the delta region, where rocks are at a premium. The village could use the profits as leverage for matching government funds the subsistence-reliant community can’t afford now, Tom said.

Villagers also want to add more trained local construction workers besides the 17 who graduated last spring from the technical center. More qualified people will be needed to tear down the old site and build the new village, said Newtok postmaster Romy Cadiente, who pushed for the training as a personal project.

Cadiente said the relocation “cannot be anything but a success because there are so many people here that will not give up, period.