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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Grinding anxiety turns into fear for many Alaska Natives when storms hit.

In dozens of villages, the ground is threatening to erode away from under homes, fuel tanks, water and sewer systems, buildings, bridges, roads and runways.

And no one knows the threat of climate change more than residents of Newtok, a village in western Alaska that already is trying to relocate to higher ground. Water has been eroding the shore there at the rate of 125 to 150 feet per year, and the school now sits just 120 feet from the water.

“There's some really big needs for this relocation and some really scary moments right now with lack of funding for a school and housing,” Newtok Relocation Project Manager Patrick Lemay, of Lemay Engineering and Consulting, told Indian Country Today.

“We're looking at possibly water being at the front door of the school within the next 12 months with no funding for a new school in the new location,” he said.

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Newtok is one of several Alaska Native communities facing immediate risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next five years because of coastal erosion and flooding, according to studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Government Accounting Office.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet. Sea ice that once extended miles from the shore and protected the coast from fall and winter storms now freezes later in the year and melts earlier. Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is thawing, making it more vulnerable to erosion.

The Newtok residents are among tens of thousands of tribal citizens across Indian Country forced to choose between staying in their ancestral lands or moving away to protect themselves from the devastation of climate change, according to an informal survey by Indian Country Today.

In Alaska, Washington, Louisiana, Florida and other coastal states, Indigenous people are facing floods, rising sea levels, coastal erosion and extreme storms. The Southwest and Plains have been hit with drought, wildfires, heat, lowered water tables and depleted waterways. And they’re all facing loss of habitat and a reduction in traditional food sources for people, livestock and wildlife.

Tale of two cities

Lack of funding to complete the relocation has left Newtok split between two sites.

The Yup’ik village in western Alaska began working to move in the 1990s, cobbling together funding from state, federal and private sources, and assistance from military training and other programs.

It built a barge landing in Mertarvik at a site nine miles east of Newtok so building supplies could be brought in. Then came a community facility, which serves as a temporary school, and homes – enough so that Newtok residents began moving to Mertarvik in 2019.

By 2020, 120 people, about a third of Newtok’s 354 residents, were living at the new village site.

COASTAL EROSION Newtok 050922-A-A1410-1118 - Water encroaches on the house of Margaret Nickerson in Newtok, Alaska, on Sept. 22, 2005. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Funding and construction of a new school is still years away, however. More houses are under construction, although building has slowed due to the pandemic.

“Either we move the people and not have a place to have the kids go to school in the new location. Or we don't get funding for the housing, they stay in Newtok, and the school (there) gets to a point where it's not usable,” Lemay said.

“The community is really at a breaking point as far as the school goes and even housing,” he said.

Further from a solution

Newtok is far ahead of other Alaskan villages facing destruction.

Another village threatened by erosion is Shishmaref, an Iñupiat village of about 575 people located on Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea, five miles from the mainland.

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Shishmaref residents voted in 2016 to relocate, but for now, they remain in place while officials work to find money for the move.

Already, the sea is within 10 feet of the runway, the village’s link to the outside world. Three flights a day bring passengers and cargo, a lot of it food, into the community, said Tribal Coordinator Holly Iyatuntuk, Iñupiaq.

The Army Corps of Engineers constructed a barrier to help protect the shore, but erosion continues despite efforts by local crews to shore it up.

“The sea wall is holding up,” Iyatuntuk said, “but there's a couple, some parts, that are not protected by rock revetment…and it’s getting eroded every year.”

A couple of hundred miles to the south, the Native Village of Shaktoolik becomes an island during heavy storms.

The village of about 250 predominantly Iñupiat people is situated on a gravel and sand spit, 125 miles southeast of Nome. On one side is the coast of Norton Sound; on the other are the Shaktoolik and Tagoomenik rivers, which converge and empty into the sound.

COASTAL EROSION Kivalina 050325-A-A1410-1014 - A resident from Kivalina, Alaska, stands in front of their home that is eroding into the water on March 25, 2005. The community faces erosion challenges from wave action and sea storms for several decades. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

During storms, water surrounds the village, with no evacuation route.

Tribal coordinator Sophia Katchatag, Iñupiaq, said the village was hard hit by fall and winter storms in 2013, 2014 and 2019. A particularly severe storm in 2013 brought mounds of logs and driftwood ashore.

“That 2013 storm…pushed a lot of wood right behind some of the homes on the ocean side,” Katchatag said.

Village officials decided to build their own berm in 2014, using local laborers and gravel, in an effort to protect in place.

“That berm alone lasted five years,” Katchatag said. “And in August of 2019, we had a fall storm and it eroded a good portion of that berm.”

The community won some grants for equipment to rebuild and maintain the berm. It recently was awarded $1.25 million in grants to bolster protection. The village plans to vote in coming months on whether to begin the years-long process of getting money to relocate.

“We have just been protecting in place because it costs millions to relocate a village and it takes years to plan and try to get all this money,” Katchatag said.

For now, the sea ice is frozen for the winter, but a bad storm could push it away from shore.

“It does put a lot of fear into everyone's minds when we hear of a storm coming,” Katchatag said. “Because we don't know what's going to happen. I mean, especially those big storms that they're facing right now, out there (in the midwestern United States)… If we get that, our village will be wiped out.”

Road to hope

A fourth village threatened by coastal erosion, the Iñupiat village of Kivalina, has taken its first steps to relocation. It’s located on a barrier island on the Chukchi Sea, 80 miles northwest of the regional hub community of Kotzebue and within the Arctic Circle.

In 2007, more than half of Kivalina’s 688 residents were evacuated when the island was flooded by debris-laden waves. 

In order to have a safe haven, the state of Alaska has completed a 7.7-mile road to higher ground and a staging pad for construction of a school/community center. The state and Northwest Arctic Borough have pulled together the $60 million needed to build the school, which villagers hope will be just the first building at the new village site.

Due to an emergency, Kivalina’s tribal administration was not available to talk with Indian Country Today about climate migration. The power was out with temperatures hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, which is about average for late December and cold enough to freeze sea water.

A few days later, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the area.