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Eroded Alaska village begins building new site

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By Rachel D'Oro -- Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - One of Alaska's most eroded coastal villages has begun to build a new community on higher ground - a colossal undertaking being closely watched as more storm-battered settlements face their own forced relocations.

''We're working slow but we're making progress,'' said Stanley Tom, administrator of Newtok, a Yupik Eskimo community of 315 wedged between two rivers prone to severe flooding in recent years. The village completed a federal land trade in 2004 for the new site, a hilly area called Mertarvik on Nelson Island nine miles to the south where residents are putting the final touches on three new homes.

Tom, 48, is the driving force behind mounting government support to prepare Mertarvik for development, offer technical assistance and explore funding possibilities. But officials say the effort is hampered by a glaring flaw: No single agency has been designated to lead erosion relocation projects involving Newtok, or, possibly in the future, other Alaska villages wracked by the effects of climate change.

Crucially needed is a formal strategy that defines and coordinates the roles a slew of agencies and tribal organizations will play in creating an unprecedented prototype, said Greg Magee, manager of the state's Village Safe Water program, which assists rural communities with development of water and sewer systems. Magee's office is spending $120,000 this year to explore the best water sources for Mertarvik, which in Yupik means ''getting water from the spring.''

''We've got to come up with a plan that can't fail, that other villages can follow after Newtok,'' he said. ''We need to find a plan that knocks the socks off everyone.''

It would cost an estimated $100,000 to hire an independent consultant to develop such a strategic plan, but with increasingly tight federal and state funds no one has stepped forward with the money. A special coalition of agencies and tribal entities that formed last year to closely work with Newtok in its move is actively looking for funding sources for such a plan as well as a host of other move-related projects.

Ultimately, though, it's up to individuals and participating agencies to keep the momentum going together, said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner and facilitator of the Newtok planning group.

''The community has to be in charge of any decision to move, in charge of choosing a new site,'' she said. ''That's why Newtok is so successful. They're taking a very self-directed role that, no matter what, they are the lead agency.''

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Residents don't have much of a choice. Newtok has one of the shortest projected life spans among scores of Alaska Native villages affected by flooding and erosion blamed in part to rising temperatures.

The current site, 480 miles west of Anchorage, is continually squeezed by the vast, raging Ninglick River, which has eaten an average of 70 feet of bank a year just south of the village. Only a few hundred feet of swampy tundra are left and officials estimate major buildings could be lost within a decade, although residents believe it could happen sooner. 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.

The smaller Newtok River hugs the east side of the village and once flowed freely, allowing barges to make regular deliveries of fuel and other supplies. But the Ninglick has sliced into the Newtok and choked off its circulation, turning it into a slough as sediments pile up. Earlier this year, residents were close to running out of gasoline before the river level was high enough for barges to deliver more fuel this summer.

Across Baird Inlet from Newtok, Mertarvik is banked by beach grasses and the Ninglick River just east of the Bering Sea. Federal and state funds will pay for a million-dollar dock and boat ramp to be completed next summer. Until then, villagers have erected a temporary landing for limited barge deliveries of lumber, equipment and construction workers.

Multiple agencies are actively involved in the preliminary groundwork, including wind studies at potential airport grounds and drilling to gage water and sewer possibilities and collect soil samples to figure out the best foundation for buildings and roads. A formal layout design for the new village is expected to be completed by spring. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing a $20 million road and evacuation center at Mertarvik in case residents are forced to flee the current site before the new village is ready.

''It could be in the middle of the new community,'' said Andrea Elconin, a corps project manager. ''The idea would be to turn it into a community center or tribal offices once the community is relocated there.''

The Corps of Engineers estimated in a report last year that moving Newtok could run as high as $130 million, or more than $412,000 per resident. That cost, which no agency is equipped to shoulder, reflects the challenge of carrying tons of construction supplies and some existing structures over undeveloped tundra - there are no roads here, no landing strip yet or large-vessel landing.

Residents are trying to accomplish as much of the work themselves as possible, a job that is expected to take several years at the least before Newtok rises again. Tom can't say exactly when the current site will be no more than a memory.

''That's an impossible question to answer,'' he said. ''It's the most frequent question everybody asks.''