One of Alaska's most eroded villages is getting more than $3 million from the state - the largest infusion of public money the tiny coastal community has received for its ongoing quest to move to higher ground.Tribal leaders in Newtok will now be able to begin building a barge landing at their new site to bring in building materials and, wherever possible, existing structures from their storm-battered village nine miles to the north. The bulk of the $3.3 million, however, will go toward the design and possible partial construction of a road from the barge landing to a planned evacuation center.
"It will boost the village site and speed up the relocation process," said tribal administrator Stanley Tom.
The Yupik Eskimo community of 400 is among six remote villages tapped by the state for immediate attention because they are highly vulnerable to escalating erosion, storms and flooding linked to global warming. The state is investing nearly $13 million to protect the villages in the coming year.
Projects being funded were fast-tracked by state and federal representatives assigned to come up with a list of priorities for a climate change subcabinet established last year by Gov. Sarah Palin. The funding package came out of the work done by the multi-agency Immediate Action Group.
"The last thing anyone wanted to do was have a big flooding event and lose a life, or have a fuel tank fall into the ocean, or lose an airport in one of these communities not on the road system," said Environmental Conservation commissioner Larry Hartig, who chairs the subcabinet. "We wanted to do our best in a short period of time to mitigate those risks. This doesn't mean our job is done. We have to keep looking at other communities."
The money is a first step, however. Officials hope it will lead to more federal assistance for a state experiencing greater effects of global warming, which is melting permanent sea ice, leaving coastal villages vulnerable to stronger storms and flooding, their shorelines and riverbanks washing away.
Erosion and flooding affect 184 - or 86 percent - of 213 Alaska Native villages to some degree, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. General Accountability Office. A handful are facing imminent relocations.
In Newtok, relentless erosion is heightened by melting and sinking permafrost, which further subjects the area to severe flooding from intensifying storms. The village is the furthest along in its relocation goal, completing a federal land trade for the new site - called Mertarvik, Yupik for "getting water from the spring" - in 2004 and launching preliminary work there.
Villagers are doing as much as they can themselves, including the construction of three houses on the site, a hilly land banked by beach grasses and the Ninglick River just east of the Bering Sea.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a participant in the subcabinet group, is proposing a $20 million road and evacuation center at Mertarvik that later could be turned into a community center or tribal offices. Officials are hoping the state's funding will give that and other Alaska projects a higher priority for limited federal funding.
"The state at this point has taken a lead by appropriating funds," said Steve Boardman, chief of civil works programs for the corps' Alaska district. "If the state picks up a significant portion of the cost, hopefully the federal government will pick up the rest."
Beside Newtok, other communities on the initial list are Kivalina, Koyukuk, Shaktoolik, Shishmaref and Unalakleet.
Among projects being funded are assistance with emergency planning, $5 million to launch a shoreline protection project at the Norton Sound community of Unalakleet and $3.3 million for one farther north at Kivalina, located at the end of an eight-mile barrier reef at the Chukchi Sea.
When the subject of public money comes, Hartig said, questions invariably arise among lawmakers and others. Why fund a shoreline protection project for a community, such as Kivalina, facing an almost certain move? Why not just move threatened residents to another village? Why spend money to move a village when its residents chose to live there?
These are legitimate questions and that's why a fair amount of thought went into the funding selections, Hartig said. Villages may ultimately need to move, but that doesn't happen overnight, he said. And moving them to another village is not the instant answer if there are no homes or jobs or room in the schools.
"We have huge investments in these vulnerable villages," Hartig said. "There's useful life left in them."