Escape shelter designed for Newtok residents

Construction of 8,500-square-foot facility could begin next year

Posted: Friday, February 20, 2009

Architects trying to cut moving costs for an imperiled Southwest Alaska village have designed an evacuation shelter with wood-heated steam baths, a gravity-fed sewer system and a permafrost-chilled cellar.

Construction of the 8,500-square-foot shelter could begin next year on a hillside nine miles south of the flood-prone village of Newtok. It willl be far less expensive than originally estimated, officials said.

The shelter, designed like a huge Quonset hut with a boxy wing on one side, will be a critical step for residents looking for a way to leave their village along the Ninglick River.

If floodwaters engulf Newtok, all 350 people could escape by boat and shack up in the shelter for a week, said designer Aaron Cooke, an architectural intern with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks.

Eventually, the building will become a community center as residents relocate to Mertarvik, the name of the new, high-ground site, Cooke said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reported that Newtok, a Yup'ik village 500 miles west of Anchorage, has less than 10 years left at its current location.

Many blame global warming for the erosion - the Ninglick River has rapidly consumed much of the land around Newtok, including the barge landing in 2005.


Shelter construction is on hold. Before the evacuation shelter at Mertarvik can be built, the state must construct a barge landing at that location, said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner and coordinator for the Newtok Planning Group.

The landing is scheduled to be finished by July 15, she said.

Also, construction of the shelter won't happen until a one-mile road extends from the barge landing to the shelter.

The Newtok Planning Group, made up largely of Newtok leaders and state and federal officials, is trying to relocate the village - complete with airstrip, school and other facilities - as inexpensively as possible.

A 2006 Corps report estimated that moving the community would cost at least $80 million - a quarter-million dollars for every resident.

Getting the government to pony up that much money might be impossible, so the planning group is seeking to cut costs on labor, building materials, shipping and in other ways.

The planning group won a commitment last year from U.S. military officials to build the temporary road to the shelter and eventually, a permanent one as part of the Innovative Readiness Training program. The program provides community help if it doubles as a military training opportunity.

The Marines and other branches are scheduled to arrive in Newtok on Aug. 1 and should finish the temporary road before winter.

It will be made of linked, plastic pieces called DuraMat and will cost $1.3 million, Cox said. The military help is free.


Also last year, the planning group invited the nonprofit housing research center to design the shelter, said Jack Hebert, the center's CEO and president.

The research center, which pursues sustainable building techniques in cold environments, has set the cost of the shelter at $2 million, he said.

"It's simplicity of design, keeping the structure light so the shipping costs are cheaper using simple mechanical systems," Hebert said.

The shelter is smaller than one originally proposed by the Corps and will cost millions of dollars less to build, especially if the military and community residents help, said Cox.

"It will be a lot less expensive than a typical huge building (in rural Alaska)," she said.

The funding source isn't certain, she said.

Gov. Sarah Palin's proposed budget for next year includes $2 million that could be used for the shelter, if approved by the Legislature, Cox said.


The research center based much of the design for the shelter on input gathered at a meeting in Newtok last November, Cooke said.

Many of the community's suggestions will help reduce costs.

"That's what makes Newtok unique - they know they have to do things cheaply," said Cooke, an Alaskan resident who designed the building as part of his master's thesis at the University of Cincinnati.

For example, residents suggested that simple steam baths would reduce the need for more costly showers and to save water, said Stanley Tom, the village's tribal administrator.

Newtok has no running water, so many residents are accustomed to taking steam baths in homemade, wooden structures outside their houses where they sweat in the heat and bathe with a bucket of water.

The design doesn't call for many showers - only four that will draw water from underground storage tanks.

But two huge steam baths will fit 12 men and women each. People can gather driftwood to heat it, Cooke said.

Residents also wanted a place to store hunting and fishing gear, so they would have nets, fish hooks and rifles available if flooding destroys those items in Newtok, he said.

Designers have included an underground storage area in the basement where people can stash gear. Because the area will be dug several feet into permafrost, residents can chill large amounts of food.

"We plan to put dry goods ahead of time under the evacuation center," Tom said. "And we'll store some dry fish, pack seal oil."

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