Seeking Higher Ground

Tribal leader leads effort to relocate village of Newtok

Posted: Monday, October 22, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Stanley Tom lives in a tiny Native community on Alaska's western coast, isolated from any road system and a world apart from the nation's urban centers.

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Yet this soft-spoken Native Alaskan is leading a massive effort to relocate the village of Newtok from its storm-flayed site to a clean, hilly land called Mertarvik. Tom's primary language is Yupik, but he presses on in English, championing a multiagency enterprise that officials say could set a precedent on how government deals with other communities wracked by the effects of climate change.

Tom, Newtok's administrator, is driven by the relentless flooding and erosion closing in on the community of 400. Another constant is the endless search for money that is never enough despite the urgency to flee one of Alaska's most vulnerable villages. And when he's not compiling reams of documents to distribute to federal and state officials, there's a good chance of finding him at his family's general store.

"I have sleepless nights," said Tom, 47, a married father of nine who also is raising a grandson and an adopted niece. "After the work, I'm like thinking."

Or he dreams about the floods that turn the village into an island, unleashing raw sewage from the Newtok River. This is the historical honey bucket dumping site that's turned sluggish in recent years with no other sanitation options left for residents in Newtok, 480 miles west of Anchorage.

"I really want to help my village to have a good clean village," Tom said.

Chronic flooding forced Newtok residents to move to the present location in the 1950s, but that move was simpler because the old site was mostly a collection of sod dwellings instead of the schools, clinics and government buildings that have since become a staple in villages across Alaska. Another modern change: Newtok's permafrost foundation is melting and sinking, further subjecting the village to erosion.

The current site has been a presence in Tom's life since his family journeyed back and forth from Newtok to Tununak, a village 30 miles away where he was born. Family members followed a subsistence lifestyle, traveling where the food was, until they gradually settled in Newtok during Tom's adolescence.

He became Newtok mayor at 24, working with village elders to dissolve the city government - a process that took years - and rule by tribal governance.

Even decades ago elders began to predict the village eventually would be overtaken by erosion although the signs were in the far distance. Residents discussed five possible relocation sites for years, but never settled on a choice.

"We had pros and cons and I finally said, 'This has got to stop. We've got to vote for these sites,"' Tom said.

Mertarvik, nine miles to the south, emerged as the favored spot. Residents finally completed a federal land trade for the new site in 2004 and have since launched preliminary work there.

There are times when Tom doesn't feel like he's doing enough, days when his wife Elizabeth has to say, "Keep on going! Don't give up!" Officials, though, point to him and the village as examples of a community taking the initiative to keep the momentum going in a seemingly impossible endeavor.

Because of Tom's constant lobbying for Newtok, a special coalition of federal and state agencies and tribal entities formed last year. They are working with the village in a host of move-related projects including ongoing wind studies at potential airport sites and a million-dollar dock and boat ramp to be completed next summer.

"He's an absolutely incredible person to me," said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner and facilitator of the Newtok planning group. "He is so persistent. Many people would throw up their hands. He will not do that. He realizes how much his village is depending on him, not only as a spokesman but to keep everybody motivated in the relocation."

But progress is far slower than nature's accelerated pace and no single entity can foot the bill of what's sure to be a multimillion dollar venture. No agency has been designated to lead the effort, either.

"It's really difficult because where's the money, where's the funding?" Tom said. "We need a big lump of money to start everything."

At his ceaseless prodding, however, the agencies have found ways to help prepare the new site for development, offer technical assistance and generate some funding sources and explore others.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is proposing a $20 million road and evacuation center there that later could be turned into a community center or tribal offices. The agency's request was made under provisions passed by Congress that authorizes the secretary of the Army to carry out emergency projects for coastal erosion, storm damage prevention and relocation efforts - at federal expense. That recommendation is under review, said Steve Boardman, chief of civil works programs for the corps' Alaska district.

Boardman agreed with other officials that Newtok's active participation could serve as a prototype for other threatened communities.

"Newtok has been the most aggressive in making their future a reality," he said. "Newtok is the conductor of the orchestra, getting all these agencies to play their instruments at the correct time."

Villagers also are doing as much as they can themselves, building a temporary barge landing at the Ninglick River as well as three houses funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"I feel very positive that Newtok is going to move," Cox said. "We're going to do it and we're thinking outside the box. I don't think you can do it following the usual channels."

Once the relocation is complete, the new site also will be called Newtok.

"Sometimes I tease the agencies that I'll call it Stanleysville," Tom said.

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