| ANCHORAGE, Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska Feb 23 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,
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
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
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
Newtok villagers have done a lot of the labor, too, such as
erecting houses funded through Bureau of Indian Affairs
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
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
(Editing by Bill Rigby and Cynthia Osterman)