In Alaska, a town threatened by climate change gets federal funding to relocate

The village of Newtok has been trying relocate to safer ground for decades.

As global temperatures rise Newtok is being threatened by melting permafrost, greater ice and snow melt, larger storms, and coastal erosion. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
As global temperatures rise Newtok is being threatened by melting permafrost, greater ice and snow melt, larger storms, and coastal erosion. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

The small coastal village of Newtok, Alaska has secured more than $15 million in funding to begin relocating households to safer ground inland. The funding is part of the $1.3 trillion spending bill signed Friday.

This amount, however, is still just a fraction of what’s required to relocate the whole village.

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 remained elusive and the effects of climate change — sea level rise, stronger storms, and melting permafrost — have made the situation increasingly urgent.

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Now, under the spending bill passed by Congress early Friday morning and signed by the president in the afternoon, Alaska’s Denali Commission — which funds rural infrastructure projects — will see its budget double to $30 million. Half of this will go to Newtok’s relocation. The Trump administration has made previous attempts to cut the program’s funding by half.

Newtok is currently losing about 70 feet of land each year due to coastal erosion. The village began planning their new community in 2000. It would be located in Mertarvik, roughly 9 miles away. Few families, however, have made the move.

A number of obstacles complicate the move: government agencies that provide funding for housing won’t build in areas that don’t have infrastructure, and agencies that fund infrastructure won’t build where there are no homes. The hope is that the boost in funding to the Denali Commission will break this cycle.

Joel Neimeyer, federal co-chair of the Denali Commission said in a statement that the commission was “very excited” that this money will help the community “realize their dream of moving to Mertarvik.”

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The $15 million, however, is not enough to relocate the entire village. Previous estimates by the Army Corps of Engineers has put the total cost of relocation at as much as $130 million. According to Neimeyer, this new funding will help “get us halfway to where the community needs in terms of housing stock.” The aim is that this will then open up other funding streams which rely on a more established community living in the area before allocating money to further development.

The village plans to move used military barracks from Anchorage and convert those into housing at the new Mertarvik site, potentially saving some money for other infrastructure needs.

The funding secured for Newtok under the spending bill comes after Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agreed on another grant  this week.

This money, awarded under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), will put $1.7 million toward buying out seven households — this would reportedly help more than 50 people move to the new village.

“With this HMGP award we can address the homes most in danger of being lost to river erosion,” Mike Sutton, director of the division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said in a statement.

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Typically, slow-moving environmental issues like erosion do not qualify for federal disaster aid, while fast-moving or sudden disasters like hurricanes do. Newtok qualified for this funding because the community is suffering from significant erosion. “Without HMGP,” Sutton said, “it is likely the residents would see their homes taken by the river without any financial help.”

All structures will be purchased at “fair market value” it was reported, then demolished. The land will be designated as an open space in perpetuity.

The funding secured for Newtok is a rare success for the state, which has not managed to relocate any of the some 31 villages along Alaska’s coast currently at risk due erosion and climate change. The villages of Shishmaref and Kivalina have made headlines in recent years after their residents voted to relocate.

Alaska isn’t the only state facing this issue. Indigenous communities in Washington state and Louisiana have also been working over the years to relocate to higher ground — both have secured funding to make the move. Most recently, on March 20, it was reported that the state of Louisiana had purchased a $11.7 million plot of land to relocate the Isle de Jean Charles community, part of a larger $48 million grant awarded to the community in 2016 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars — or more — to move all indigenous villages currently seeking relocation across the country. And as Netwok’s struggle shows, it is not easy to secure funding to make relocation a reality.

Under President Obama, agencies had agreed to begin figuring out how to help these communities who have made the difficult choice to relocate in the face of mounting climate change impacts. But under the Trump administration, these plans were never put into action.