Escalating erosion an unprecedented crisis for Native villages

Once-nomadic people can no longer pack up and move away

Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2006

NEWTOK - The last time chronic flooding forced this tiny Alaska village to relocate, sled dogs pulled the old church to its new home three miles away, far from the raging Ninglick River.

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That was in 1950 and life was simpler in Newtok, mostly a collection of traditional sod dwellings other than the small wooden church, which was dismantled, towed and rebuilt. Houses and modern structures gradually took over the new site, but the river again crept to the edge of the Yupik Eskimo community. Persistent erosion has eaten an average of 70 feet of bank a year, overtaking the local landfill and the barge landing. Now melting permafrost is subsiding, further subjecting the village to severe flooding from intensifying storms.

"This place is sinking," said Joseph Tommy, 48, who was born in Newtok. "If the erosion keeps on coming, we will be in a grave situation."

So once again, Newtok must move, leaving residents and officials grappling with an unprecedented crisis looming over scores of native villages along Alaska's increasingly battered western coast.

It's no longer a matter of just packing up and going for these once-nomadic people. The crucial difference this time: finding the funds to move or replace millions of public dollars in schools, clinics and government offices. Replacement costs are beyond the reach of these remote, cash-strapped communities that typically rely on subsistence foods for economic survival - costs that no single federal or state entity is equipped to shoulder.

"We've become complicated with the rest of the world," Nick Tom, Newtok's former tribal administrator, said as he led visitors through mud and snow, pointing out shifting houses and the crumbled soil fringing the Ninglick. "We can't even move an inch without any money."

This article is the third in a series of stories by The Associated Press examining the effect of erosion in its various forms as well as the strengths of Alaska Natives who have endured some of the harshest conditions on Earth for thousands of years.

It's a dilemma taking on a new urgency as the effects of climate change escalate in a region many consider the harbinger of global warming. Erosion and flooding are nothing new for seaside and river communities. But many are increasingly vulnerable to melting permafrost and shorter periods of the shorefast ice that historically protected them from powerful storms.

It could get worse. Further retreating ice could lead to stronger wave buildup from storms, said John Walsh with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"Over the last decade the pace of retreat of the ice is actually ahead of climate models," Walsh said. "The changes we're seeing are more rapid. We could be in for some interesting times."

Erosion and flooding affect 86 percent - or 184 - of 213 Alaska native villages to some degree, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. General Accountability Office. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at many of those and other communities to figure out which ones need the most help from a network of state and federal agencies increasingly taking note of the problem.

"When there is a problem that develops over years and decades, such as Alaskan erosion, the perception of urgency is not as acute," said Bruce Sexauer, a senior planner with the corps. "The impacts of a hurricane can be felt nationwide, whereas similar situations in remote communities are oftentimes only known by a select few."

Newtok and two other villages, Shishmaref and Kivalina, face the shortest life spans at their current locations. In a report released in June, the corps said the three villages likely would have to move within 10- to 15-years at a total cost as high as $355 million. Almost $10.5 million in federal and state funds have been spent there on erosion control efforts.

Some officials believe conditions are most urgent in Newtok, tightly wedged between two rivers. The vast, rushing Ninglick has cut into the smaller Newtok River, turning it into a slough. This is the historical sewage dumping place for Newtok's 315 residents, who have no indoor plumbing and use buckets as toilets. In the summer, the stench wafts through the village.

Compounding the problem, fall storms send flood waters surging through the Ninglick and up the Newtok, turning the village into an island, said Brenda Kerr, the corps' Newtok planner, part of a new multiagency effort exploring possible actions.

"It's hard to ignore," Kerr said. "The water is scary enough in and of itself, and then you consider what's in it. The public health concern is probably one of the biggest triggers here."

The most attention and funding have been directed at Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village of 600 located on a narrow island just north of the Bering Strait. Storms can wipe out as much as 125 feet of shoreline at a time, a considerable loss for a sand strip no wider than a quarter mile. But the problem is more insidious, said village transportation planner Tony Weyiouanna, who has lobbied hard for state and federal funding that's helped pay for protective walls over a fraction of the exposed shoreline.

"We don't need a storm to have erosion. We can lose 10- to 15 feet at a time in a high tide," Weyiouanna said. "Most people outside the community only notice when fall storms cause erosion here."

Most residents have zeroed in on a preferred relocation site near Tin Creek, on the mainland 12 miles southwest of Shishmaref, if soil tests support development there.

Newtok is ahead of the others, having completed a federal land trade in 2004 for a hilly area called Mertarvik on Nelson Island nine miles to the south. But that's just on paper. The Corps of Engineers estimates that moving would cost as much as $130 million, or more than $412,000 per resident. That price tag reflects the challenge of carrying some existing structures and tons of construction supplies over undeveloped tundra - there are no roads here, no landing strip and no barge landing for large vessels - to build a community from the ground up.

"The land swap was successful. It's the move that will cost us money," said Stanley Tom, Newtok's acting tribal administrator and Nick Tom's brother.

As with other threatened villages, local funds are stretched thin. State and federal money also is tight, although the state recently received $800,000 in federal funds and will provide another $200,000 toward developing a dock and boat ramp at the new site, 480 miles west of Anchorage.

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs also funded construction of three homes there and residents have built a temporary barge landing. Another $25,000 from the state will be used to design the layout of the new community, Stanley Tom said.

About 370 miles to the north, the estimated relocation cost is even steeper for Shishmaref, running as high as $200 million to start from scratch at a new location - or about half that amount to move Shishmaref residents to the coastal hub towns of Nome or Kotzebue.

Joining another community is unacceptable to Shishmaref residents - or most rural Alaska natives. In their nomadic past, they generally stayed within a certain region. Today they hunt the same animals as their ancestors, create their art work with the same materials, know the land intimately.

Being absorbed into another culture - even one only 100 miles away - would amount to a certain kind of death, exposing residents to urban ills, including alcohol that's banned in Shishmaref and other dry villages. Residents fear the subsistence lifestyle their traditions and economy so heavily rely on would fall off, pushing them to welfare.

For Weyiouanna, it's difficult to ask the government to help fund the more expensive option, relocating in ancestral grounds, but that same government brought in the costly infrastructure residents have come to depend on, he said.

"Fifty years ago, we would not be asking for this help," he said.

There are other modern complexities: overlapping layers of government, including federal, state, tribal, regional and local agencies - none with a lead role in a slew of erosion projects. There is the question of what to do with abandoned sites, especially those with cultural significance or potential contamination. For a handful of villages, there is the lack of federal or state funds for basic necessities at current sites because the communities have decided to relocate.

And ultimately, officials and stricken villages must justify multimillion-dollar projects to protect or move a few isolated people, especially post-Katrina.

"I think there's very little likelihood that the federal government or the state government could come up with $150 million to say, 'OK, Shishmaref or Newtok or Kivalina, we're going to move you next year,"' said Gary Brown, with the state's emergency management office. "When you look at the numbers it's kind of staggering, but if a community can figure out a way through the maze of political processes to do it incrementally, it might be more palatable."

But it is not the government's role to bankroll the entire cost of building a new community, said Mike Black, director of the Alaska Division of Community Advocacy. Residents are the ones who decide whether to move and when they take the first steps, then government can respond with modest investments - a layer at a time - such as Newtok is attempting to do.

"Either we'll succeed because everyone worked together or we'll fail because we didn't," Black said. "I think Newtok will be a prime proving ground on how well we can work together."

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