Newtok Awaits Relocation Funding, More Than 30 Years After Flood Risk was Documented

May 27, 2016

Newtok’s “climate refugees” still waiting to move to higher ground …


Second of three stories about climate change-driven relocation of Alaskan coastal villages.

“I was scared, ’cause it looked so close ... And you could just see these huge waves just come at you,” says Sabrina Warner, describing her fear of floodwaters sweeping over her home in the Alaskan coastal village of Newtok.

Nathan Tom talks with a reporter while his partner, Sabrina Warner, plays with a dog.
Credit NPR

Warner says the Ninglick River had eroded so much land around her village of Newtok three years ago that she now fears powerful storms that hit Alaska’s western coast in the fall will flood the community. That’s why many say the people of Newtok could become Alaska’s first climate-change refugees. And it why Warner’s partner, Nathan Tom, told a reporter in 2013 he’s anxious to move his family to higher ground, up and out of the flood zone.

“I just can’t wait to move the houses or build our house,” she said.

Three years later, Warner, Tom and most of the other 350 people of Newtok are still waiting for federal and state help move the villagers to nearby Mertarvik – more than 30 years after the problem was first outlined in a 1984 study.

A steel storage container slid into the water after erosion chewed away at this bank in Newtok.
Credit State of Alaska

“I believe that within four years, Newtok will no longer be a viable community,” says Joel Niemayer the federal co-chair of the Denali Commission, the agency President Obama tapped to coordinate a response to the threat that climate change-driven flooding poses to Newtok and several other villages along Alaska’s coasts and rivers.

“Within four years, the river will be right next to the school,” Niemeyer said. “It’ll have already have gobbled up the community water source. And then not far behind, it’s the airport.”

A 2007 map shows the steady erosion of land around Newtok, based on U.S. Geological Survey data, and projects the progression of the erosion toward the village.
Credit State of Alaska

He couldn’t say whether the agencies will be able to pull off this funding in time to build a new community before the river claims the land on which Newtok was built in 1958. That’s when the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs established the community on that site because it was as far up the Newtok River as the barge carrying materials to build a new school could go.

“Relocation is very involved,” said Sally Cox, a planner with the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs. “And there are a lot of different things that have to happen.”

Cox has been involved in the Newtok relocation effort for years. She, like Niemeyer, both described a lengthy process that begins with a community deciding whether to move and if so where; then proceeds through years of planning, public interaction – and finally, getting funding.

“It’s a very slow process,” Cox said, “and government is very slow about responding to that need, especially because it costs so much money.”

How much money, neither Cox nor Niemeyer could say. Some estimate each relocation could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Next week: Kivalina learns to work with bureaucracies adapting to climate change response.