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Eroding Alaska village forges ahead on relocation despite military setback

Alex DeMarban
Capt. Christopher Larsen / US Army

The U.S. military has scuttled plans to help an eroding Alaska village move this summer after a landing craft bearing supplies for the project grounded near Kodiak earlier this month, military officials said.

The lack of help is a bummer, said Stanley Tom, the village's relocation leader. But the grounding gives Newtok residents a chance to prove they can build an emergency evacuation shelter without outside help.

"It gives me something to show the state that, yes, the tribe can build this on its own," Tom said.

The 4,000-square-foot shelter will be the first public building to rise at Mertarvik, an island about 500 miles west of Anchorage. The quiet site is occupied by bears, ptarmigan and musk oxen, but no humans. Not yet anyway.

The emergency shelter will sit atop high ground on solid bedrock and will eventually become the community center. It will house Newtok's 370 residents in the event of severe flooding in that imperiled village about 20 minutes away by boat.

Eroding villages

Many Alaska communities are fighting the effects of climate change, but Newtok is eroding fastest.

Over the years, the Ninglick River has chewed toward the village 70 feet a year, on average, devouring stretches of thawed permafrost one chunk at a time.

In Newtok, evidence of erosion are everywhere. Telephone poles lean at odd angles. A rusting fuel silo seems ready to slide off its wooden foundation. The community center floor rises and falls like a ruffled sea. The building floods so often that someone cut a hole in the corner to sweep out the water some three years ago. 

In the last 15 years, the Ninglick has swallowed Newtok's landfill and the landing area for the barge that delivers summer supplies. Homes may be next as the river marches closer, said Sally Russell Cox, the state planner for the relocation.

"Hopefully, people will move before they start getting seriously threatened," she said.

The effort isn't cheap. One study estimated the move would cost up to $130 million, or about $350,000 per resident.

Many have argued it can be done for less. That's where the armed forces come in.

Military help runs aground

The "Innovative Readiness Training" program provides military muscle for community projects in the U.S., as long as those projects double as training for reservists.  

In 2009, a state official asked program officials for help. The training program had long provided medical support to Alaska villages through Arctic Care, an annual effort sendint military doctors, dentists and veterinarians into the Bush.

Military brass signed on for five summers. In the last three years, Marine Corps engineers, Navy Seabees and other soldiers have laid part of the groundwork for the move, including installation of a long road of interlocking, plastic slabs stretching from the water up a hill to the shelter site.

The assistance has reduced state costs, which have totaled less than $10 million so far, said Cox. Federal money in addition to the military contributions has also been spent on the move, though Cox didn't have that figure.  

In early June, the U.S. Army Reserve was hauling supplies on the Monterrey, a landing craft with the 481st Transportation Company from Vallejo, Calif. But the ship struck a rock in Chiniak Bay near the town of Kodiak, and the crew decided to run it aground. Spill estimates vary, but up to 15,000 gallons of diesel leaked into the salmon-rich waters.

Lt. Col. Bernd Zoller, with the Secretary of Defense Reserve Affairs, said supplies on board included such things as heavy-equipment vehicles and sleeping quarters for soldiers. The ship leaked fuel, requiring a cleanup, but the boat was refloated this past week. The supplies will be hauled back to California as soon as possible, Zoller said.  

Higher-ups had initially considered having a second vessel come north to Alaska to finish moving the equipment. But the time needed to prepare another vessel and crew and sail it from the West Coast would have substantially reduced the military's time at the site, scheduled for only eight weeks to begin with, he said.

Too much effort would have been spent "trying to eke a couple of good days out of the mission," leaving not many days to help the village. So officials ended the summer plans and has already "repurposed" the soldiers, who planned to head north in two-week stints, he said.

The military had planned to build two large storage huts and help build the evacuation shelter, Cox said.   

Work missed this summer can be picked up next year, perhaps by sending more reservists, Zoller said, assuming the project gets another shot of funding in its final year.

Newtok pushes ahead on its own

The tribal government in Newtok had hoped to have the military's help to build the emergency shelter, Tom said. But the community will forge ahead. The tribe will hire 17 Newtok residents this summer to build the shelter using pre-insulated sections.

The foundation was laid last summer by a state-hired contractor. Materials and equipment to finish are coming separately, Tom said.

The tribal government has already built six homes on the island using federal grants. Two families plan to move in this summer, though they'll return to Newtok temporarily when the river can't be traveled by snowmachine or boat.  

They're eager to be "pioneers" as the village begins its staged move, Tom said.

Just like their old houses back in Newtok, the new ones won't have running water and sewer. But the families will have access to the old village for groceries and other supplies. They can chop river ice for water, and eat fish, musk oxen and ptarmigan.  

"You know how we live," Tom said. "We've survived many years."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.