The cost of relocating villages that face extinction in the next decade or so -- sooner if the wrong storm hits the wrong place at the wrong time -- is staggering. Even by Alaska standards.
Moving Newtok, a Bering Sea coast town of 315 being squished and swamped by two rivers, could cost as much as $130 million. Or $412,000 per person.
Moving Shishmaref, a strip of sand in the Chukchi Sea that's home to about 600 people, could cost as much as $200 million. Or $330,000 per person.
Moving Kivalina, a shrinking barrier island in the Chukchi that last month saw most of its 380 residents run for safety from the season's first storm, could cost as much as $125 million. Or $330,000 per person.
Meanwhile, millions more are needed to protect people and facilities threatened by catastrophic erosion until they move.
Where will all the money come from?
"That's the million-dollar question," said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner who is involved in the Newtok relocation.
It's closer to a billion-dollar question, and it's getting a lot of attention at the federal, state and local levels.
The usual sources are being tapped, among them the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Transportation, the Village Safe Water Program and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Even the idea of using some of the Permanent Fund has been floated.
Cox hopes dollars alone don't drive the discussions.
"I hate to put things in economic terms, because these are human beings we're talking about," she said. "These are lifestyles they've led for thousands of years that have been passed on to them by their forefathers. How can you minimize all that (by putting it) in economic terms?"
In years past, Natives would have moved to safer places if nature's wrath threatened their homes. Today, things like school buildings, airstrips, roads and washeterias keep once-nomadic people anchored in place.
SO MANY VILLAGES
The Denali Commission, a state-federal agency created by Sen. Ted Stevens to improve Alaska's infrastructure, has $100 million to offer. Given the many needs of the many villages being eaten away by erosion, that's a drop in the roiling Chukchi Sea.
Not everyone will get what they need when they need it, Stevens warned village leaders at a U.S. Senate field hearing earlier this month in Anchorage.
Tony Weyiouanna of Shishmaref told Stevens and Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana -- both members of the U.S. Senate's Disaster Recovery subcommittee -- that his town, located on a quarter-mile-wide strip of sand, loses ground to the sea every year. The village needs $61 million for protection and relocation, and that's just for one year.
"Your one village's needs is almost more than the entire funding we have available" from the Denali Commission, Stevens noted. "Each village is proceeding on the basis that they're going to come first. That's not possible."
Yet Stevens acknowledged that action is needed immediately in some places.
Like Newtok. Between seasonal rains and flooding rivers, residents there have to be careful where they step.
"We have to use the boardwalks all the time. We can't use tennis shoes on the tundra. You just get wet and it's really deep," tribal administrator Stanley Tom said. "Some of the boardwalks now are sinking too. We try to keep them floating. We put blocks underneath the boardwalks."
The Corps of Engineers says Newtok has about 10 years left before erosion claims it.
Tom shakes his head at that estimate. He figures the village has two or three years left.
A NEW KIND OF EMERGENCY
Newtok, Shishmaref, and Kivalina are the canaries in the mine that is global warming, which is eating river banks, thawing permafrost and delaying the annual formation of shore-fast ice that protects coastal towns from fall sea storms.
Even Stevens, once a skeptic of global warming and man's role in hastening it, talks about the effects of "global climate change." Long a champion of the oil industry that supports Alaska's economy, he has in recent months pushed for fuel-efficient American-made cars and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
"I think there is a contribution of mankind to the warming cycle," he told Channel 2 news this summer, although he also said he believes the warming trend is part of a natural cycle hundreds of years in the making.
Stevens harbors no doubt, though, that many Alaska villages face impending disaster.
"This is a new type of emergency," he said at the Senate hearing. "We get it first, but it's coming everywhere."
The question for everyone is how to deal with it financially.
Even unpopular alternatives -- such as relocating Shishmaref residents to Nome -- are expensive. That would cost $93 million, a quarter of which would pay for new homes, plus another $35 million for new roads in Nome to handle the population boom.
The price of relocation is so steep, it would be cheaper to buy everyone in Shishmaref, Newtok and Kivalina a condo in Fairbanks or Anchorage. But if any government officials are thinking that, or questioning the idea of rescuing villages, they're not willing to say it.
Landrieu said such thinking is untenable. Natives have made their homes on the western edge of Alaska for thousands of years, and their traditional way of life "shouldn't come to an abrupt end," she said.
Stevens said no one has the right to tell people who live in endangered villages they should pack up and move to a larger town and forfeit their communities, cultures and lifestyles.
"It's not up to us," he said. "If you're God, yes. But I'm not ready to play God and tell them what to do."
Landrieu, who saw New Orleans neighborhoods destroyed and Gulf Coast towns all but wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, said it's cheaper to spend money on protection and relocation than it is to rebuild. So far the bill for rebuilding the Gulf Coast is $150 billion, she said.
But there are limits to what taxpayers are willing to take on, she said.
THE FRONT LINES
"It's doubtful the relocation of one of these Native villages would come out on the positive side of a cost-benefit analysis," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C. "But you have to look at it overall. Is it the right thing to do? Is it what we should do?
"These communities are at the front line of global warming and we have to be cognizant of two factors. One is, they were here before the bulk of the rest of us were. And also, what we decide to do there is going to set precedents and trends for how we're going to react to the same issues on thousands of miles of coastline in the rest of the country."
In Newtok, state and federal grants are being piecemealed together to gradually move the town to a safer location. The village is pitching in, too, with labor and money.
It negotiated a land trade to acquire a new town site on Nelson Island, and in 2000 the Newtok Traditional Council hired a contractor to help plan the move. Residents are currently building a couple of homes at the new site, but they don't have all the heavy equipment they need.
Tom said one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of a single agency or group to be in charge of planning. Stevens said it's imperative to choose a single agency for that job -- and to give it authority over others when it comes to making and carrying out plans.
Meanwhile, Cox said, three groups -- the Corps of Engineers, Village Safe Water and DOT -- are working together in Newtok.
USE THE PERMANENT FUND?
Steve Ivanoff, a transportation planner from Unalakleet who testified for western Norton Sound villages at the Senate hearing, said the State of Alaska could easily come to the rescue by tapping some of the $40 billion in the Permanent Fund.
Meant to be a rainy-day savings account, Ivanoff figures the need to relocate villages away from life-threatening storms, floods and erosion meets the definition of a rainy day.
It may be the federal government's job to come to the aid of Americans under assault -- and most everyone agrees nature is mounting a serious attack against the Alaska coast -- but the state has the money right now to relocate and protect the most imperiled towns, Ivanoff said.
He points to Shaktoolik, a village of 214 that sits on the Norton Sound coast. It used to be in a safer place, Ivanoff said, but it moved closer to the shore in the 1930s when the Bureau of Indian Affairs put a school near the beach because it was cheaper to build there than inland.
In recent years, three major floods have eroded natural barriers that once protected the town. There is no evacuation road.
"Shaktoolik could be wiped out by the right storm," he said. "We have $40 billion in the bank and we have people living in harm's way that might not be here in two weeks.
"If something happens to these people, someone will have to look in the mirror and say, 'You had the opportunity to help these people. Had.' "
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4309.
High cost of erosion
(For villages not expected to survive 10 years)
(For villages with serious annual erosion damage)
Source: 2006 U.S. Army Corps of Engineer study