ANCHORAGE - As erosion creeps ever closer, residents of a tiny southwest Alaska village continue their slow but steady work to relocate to higher ground.
The Yupik Eskimo village of Newtok has completed construction of a landing barge, part of an ambitious multi-government endeavor driven by local leaders. The barge is a crucial piece of infrastructure for the new site nine miles from the flood-prone community of 350.
A landing strip has not yet been built, but road construction is set to begin. The Marines and other military branches are providing personnel and heavy equipment to build a 3,800-foot road this summer between the site of a planned evacuation center and their base camp that they built last year near the barge landing.
Stanley Tom, Newtok's tribal administrator, said locals also hope three new houses will be added to three homes already there.
"We're making progress," he said. "We will gradually build houses."
The evacuation center will serve as a bridge for residents and could later function as tribal offices or some kind of community center once the move is complete.
Tom said the erosion that has fueled a sense of urgency among locals continues. Newtok, 480 miles west of Anchorage, has one of the shortest projected life spans among scores of Alaska native villages affected by erosion and flooding blamed in part to rising temperatures.
The community is being choked by the vast, raging Ninglick River, which has eaten an average of 50 feet of bank a year just south of the village. While many eroding communities are built on sand or gravel, Newtok's foundation is permafrost, which is melting and sinking, further subjecting the village to flooding from intensifying storms.
Hugging the east side of the village is the smaller Newtok River. It once flowed freely, but the Ninglick has cut into the Newtok's circulation, turning it into a slough as sediments pile up.
Marine Capt. Chad Hailey, who is heading up the military's assistance, called Newtok's plight "heart-wrenching." He said he is excited to be a part of the relocation work.
The military's involvement is part of a program that lets members build on skills developed in various branches. For the Newtok project, about four teams of up to 50 members each will rotate through the base camp for a three-month period beginning in June.
"It's an outstanding training opportunity for us," Hailey said. "We get to further our training that we've received previously, which benefits the military. But on top of that, it's mutually beneficial to the village."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with the Newtok Traditional Council in finalizing work on environmental permits for the evacuation center and the road to the planned facility. The Corps also completed the road design work, said Andrea Elconin, a corps project manager.
"What's striking to me is that the traditional council is just working real hard and leading this multiagency group and making something happen," she said. "And that's unprecedented."
Much work remains.
And much planning, said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner and facilitator of a group of federal and state agencies involved in the effort. To that end, an official timeline and schedule for the relocation will begin development this year with $150,000 secured through the state's coastal impact assistance program, which is funded by the federal Minerals Management Service.
"Even though we're getting through some of the infrastructure now," Cox said, "there's a whole lot of things that have to be done to make this a village."
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