Alaska's climate refugees build new village

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Tue Feb 23, 2010 3:24pm EST

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska Feb 23 (Reuters) - Residents of a tiny Yup'ik Eskimo village in Alaska are preparing to become the United States' first climate refugees and flee their homes as the thawing permafrost beneath washes away.

Residents of Newtok, a settlement of 350 people on the banks of the rapidly eroding Ninglick River in western Alaska, feel fortunate.

They are building a new village called Mertarvik, at an elevation of about 300 feet (91 meters) on adjacent Nelson Island, with help from military personnel under a U.S. Defense Department training program. Many residents expect to be living there by 2012.

"It's a rolling hill, with a good water source. It's really nice and high," said Stanley Tom, administrator of the Newtok tribal government.

Newtok, about 500 miles (805 km) west of Anchorage and far from the state's road system, is among the nearly 200 Native villages the federal government has found to have serious erosion or flooding problems, many linked to rapid warming. In the worst cases, softened permafrost is being eaten away by big waves unleashed in waters newly free of sea ice.

Newtok is not alone in its quest to move to safer ground.

At four sites, including Newtok, conditions are so perilous that entire villages have plans to relocate entirely, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps estimated in 2006 that those villages had as few as 10 years until their homes completely wash away. Several other villages have plans to relocate at least partially, moving homes and key facilities to safer ground.

But scant relocation progress has been made by any of the hard-hit villages except Newtok, the Government Accountability Office reported last year.

The GAO blamed the huge cost estimates -- as much as $200 million per village -- and the failure of any government agency to take responsibility for moving such tiny villages where, in some cases, the only local authority is tribal.

TRAINING FOR IRAQ

Sticker shock has been a big impediment in Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo village on the northwest coast of Alaska, where huge storm waves are carving chunks of land off into the sea.

Millie Hawley, environmental coordinator for the Kivalina tribal government, said villagers worry that their home will disappear before any replacement is found.

"Am I going to pass away before that happens?" she asked at a recent meeting in Anchorage of local, state and federal officials addressing climate problems in villages. "People have been planning for more than 20 years, and they have battle fatigue."

For Newtok, the cost of moving to a safer, more inland site was estimated several years ago to be as much as $130 million.

By collecting funds from a patchwork of sources -- from major federal departments to small Alaska non-profits -- and doing much of the labor themselves, Newtok villagers are striving to make the move much affordable.

Villagers have tackled the problem in phases and secured the help of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel taking part in the Defense Department's Innovative Readiness Training program.

Servicemen arrived in Newtok last year, launching a construction program intended as training for rebuilding projects in war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. Last summer they built a barge landing site. This year they will start building an evacuation road, a project that will make use of modular mats placed on the soggy tundra, and an emergency shelter.

Newtok villagers have done a lot of the labor, too, such as erecting houses funded through Bureau of Indian Affairs grants.

The campaign to move Newtok began decades ago. Villagers in the early 1980s convinced the state legislature to fund a detailed erosion assessment. In 1996, they voted overwhelming to relocate to Mertarvik. They convinced Congress in 2003 to authorize a land swap needed to acquire title to the new village site. And they are working through a multi-agency Newtok Planning Group set up in 2006 to get a variety of necessary relocation tasks accomplished.

As for why Newtok has been successful while other villages' relocations have stalled, part of the reason may be cultural, said Sally Russell Cox, an Alaska Department of Commerce planner involved in the Newtok project.

Newtok has been very isolated, with very little outside contact until recently, she said. "They've kept a lot of traditional cohesiveness," she said. "It's been really bred into the people of the Nelson Island area to be very self-sufficient."

Tom said he hopes the villagers will start to occupy the new site by 2012. The first homes built in Mertarvik -- which translates as "getting water from the spring" -- have been reserved for elders, so some young residents will have to accompany them when people make the move for good, he said.

As for the ultimate cost of the relocation, "I don't have any idea," Tom said. "Once we relocate, we'll come up with a figure." (Editing by Bill Rigby and Cynthia Osterman)

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