After 33 years working in the federal government, Joel Neimeyer handed in his work credentials to the Department of Commerce on Friday afternoon, April 20, in Washington D.C. For eight years, Neimeyer has served as the federal co-chair of Alaska’s Denali Commission, the agency tasked with funding rural infrastructure projects in the state. But he’s been with the agency much longer than that — in June 1999 he became its sixth employee.
But now the top job responsible for managing the relocation of communities threatened by climate change will be empty. And with no named successor, Neimeyer’s term is ending at a crucial moment for Alaska. Just weeks ago, when the 2018 omnibus spending bill was signed by President Trump at the end of March, the Denali Commission was awarded $30 million, half of which will be dedicated to relocating the town of Newtok.
Over the last month and right up to his final few hours in the job, Neimeyer has been busy signing his name to a flurry of documents in order to ensure the money is officially set in motion and the small coastal Alaskan village can begin the moving process.
Located along the banks of the Ninglick River, the land on which the community of roughly 350 people lives has been eroding away since the late 1950s. They have been trying to relocate since 1994 but securing funding has so far remained elusive and the effects of climate change — coastal erosion, sea level rise, stronger storms, and melting permafrost — have made the situation increasingly urgent.
The community plans to relocate to Mertarvik, roughly 9 miles inland. The $15m awarded isn’t enough to build a whole new village — the money will go towards converting a few old military barracks into new homes — but Neimeyer hopes it will help unlock other funds. A total $130 million is needed.
Securing this money has been the main barrier to the village’s relocation project. To date, any money received by the state for Newtok’s relocation has come through a series of hodge-podge grants or specific agreements. This is because there is no dedicated national or state policy when it comes to funding the relocation of a community threatened by climate change.
FEMA — the federal emergency management agency — is responsible for disaster relief after an event happens, such as a hurricane or wildfire. It does not preemptively fund slow-moving disasters such as coastal erosion or the impacts of sea level rise. It’s not just FEMA though. Other agencies also have specific quirks about how they allocate money.
It’s a catch-22 Neimeyer told me, the morning of his final day as a federal employee: “You’ve got the housing funders saying where’s the wrap-around services [like sanitation or power], and those that provide wrap-around services say where’s the housing and people?”
Under Neimeyer’s leadership, the Denali Commission has been trying to break through this stalemate. And last summer they found a way.
The commission knew that the Trump administration was planning to zero it out. But what they didn’t initially know was that to help with closing down the agency, the White House Office of Management and Budget was planning on allocating money under the 2018 budget to shut it down.
“They were giving us money to close out,” Neimeyer said. “And I’m looking at it, and I’m like, wait a minute, they’re going to pay, we didn’t know that. Literally, we did not know that. Holy crap.”
So he spoke with his staff to find a way to make the most of this newfound money. As he put it: “If they do close us down, okay we get closed down, but why have this extra money and not put it into use?”
It was during an August meeting to discuss the budget when he says his fellow commissioner Kathie Wasserman came up with an idea for how to use the money. “Kathie said, what if we were to fund housing?” Neimeyer recounted. “And the other commissioners said yeah, which was quite extraordinary … it’s one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.”
Together, the team hatched a plan to combine several small pots of money into a dedicated pool to put towards building homes in Mertarvik. While it might not sound revolutionary, given the bureaucracy that comes along with an agency deemed a “coordinator” rather than an “implementer,” making the active decision to do something, rather than help others coordinate their doing, was a substantial shift in thinking.
Momentum then began to build. “Everyone’s watching what we’re doing,” Neimeyer said. “The [congressional] delegation sees this and they say there’s momentum going here that we didn’t know about, and they are doing it on their own.”
“Then I get a phone call,” he said. It was one of the delegation staffers working on the annual budget. “He says, if I were to get you $15 million, would it do any good? Could you really do something?”
In December 2017, the Yupik tribe in Newtok was told the good news. “Once they told the tribe,” said Neimeyer, “I told my staff, this is real.”
Neimeyer says he’s been asked a few times what it’s been like to work under differing administrations — he started the role under a Democratic administration, and now the government is run by a Republican president.
It was in 2015 under Obama that the Denali Commission was given the new responsibility of coordinating community relocations. But Neimeyer says he “won’t take the bait” and say that things now under the Trump administration are terrible.
Instead, what Neimeyer has experienced is an unusual amount of attention to his small agency. “What has happened is that this administration has had a slow start, and I think everyone knows that, getting their appointees,” he said. “So, what you have is a lot of career professionals running the organizations.” As opposed to political appointees with potentially more politically-driven motivations.
“And those career professionals have been watching what the Denali Commission has been trying to do,” Neimeyer continued. “So, in some respects, we’ve got more audience time with this administration than the prior one.”
Maybe the Obama administration was tired towards the end, he says, or they were busy trying to finalize other things, but whatever the reason, he feels the commission got a bit lost over the past few years. Now, under Trump, it’s been an unexpected turn and he can’t explain the cause any better. “I was shocked at the amount of attention they gave us and how much support they gave us,” said Neimeyer, who’s a Democrat. He hopes that his successor, likely a Republican, will have even more success.
As for the $15 million, all of that money is guaranteed to be used and implemented, Neimeyer told me. With no new appointee lined up, it has been his mission over these past few weeks to make sure the projects are all approved — only the federal co-chair is able to sign off on this spending.
What happens beyond that? “We don’t know,” he said. “The big question is will that unlock the doors for other agencies?” It will be difficult for future funders to say it’s not a community once homes are built.
“It’s very important that Alaskans are successful. All of Alaska needs to be successful in the development of Mertarvik, otherwise no more money will come,” Neimeyer said. “Congress is watching.”
Beyond just Newtok, at least two other villages in Alaska are looking to relocate — Shishmaref and Kivalina — while dozens of others are also at risk from the impacts of coastal erosion. And this is to say nothing of the impacts of flooding and melting permafrost, which are currently being studied by researchers. It’s not just Alaska though — the success of moving one small Arctic village could resonate in the lower 48 as well, Neimeyer believes.
The goal is to use the Newtok project to build a playbook for how relocation can be done. To prove it can be done effectively and strategically, and in keeping the community’s voice involved. The question the federal government needs to ask itself, Neimeyer said, is “under these extreme weather events, how do we assist the local communities to be successful?”
Soon enough, a one-in-100-year storm is going to hit Alaska, and when it does, one or more villages will be hit.
It will happen at high tide, during the winter, at night, Neimeyer predicts. When the winter storm comes, there will be a “wall of water surging,” he said. “Waves surging back and forth. The island will be under water, and then the wave will dissipate, and then it won’t be. And you’re going to go through this for hours, and basically pound the structure and fill every structure with water. Just imagine, that’s going on, and it’s night time, and, I just can’t, poor community, what’s going to happen?”
“There’s no getting out,” he continued. “At a certain point you just can’t get out. And we just have to somehow shelter in place.”
This type of storm hasn’t happened yet. When it does though, he said, then the community will be eligible for FEMA funding. And that’s when it will be critical to have a plan in place for how to use the money.
That it takes this type of event for funding to kick-in is the problem. It’s why Neimeyer has been working to slowly shift things through his work with Newtok. “That’s why I think we need to change the way we look at these things,” he said. “Because we have a new normal, and the way we’ve been doing things in the past can’t, I don’t think, respond to the new normal.”