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Rural Alaska

$15 million from feds a ‘dream come true’ as Alaska village plans relocation

An aerial image of Newtok in October of 2016 shows how close water has come to the buildings of the village. Even more land has been lost since then to the Ninglick River. (Photo by Romy Cadiente)

The head of the Denali Commission said the new federal spending bill includes $15 million that will probably all go to help a climate-imperiled village in Alaska move to a new location.

The money won't cover all of Newtok's effort to rebuild on high ground 9 miles away at Mertarvik, where a handful of houses have already been built, officials said Friday. But it will be the largest shot of cash ever provided for a relocation effort that began more than 20 years ago, and could open the door for more federal funding.

"This literally changes peoples lives right here," said Romy Cadiente, tribal relocation coordinator for Newtok Village Council. "The eroding shorelines are so close. This couldn't have come at a better time."

On Friday afternoon, the news still hadn't reached many of the 375 residents in the village 500 miles west of Anchorage.

"Whoa, really?" said Marla Fairbanks, secretary at the school. "Sounds like a dream come true."

She said floods have gotten worse during fall storms the last two years, threatening her house on the safer side of the village.

"Building that community at the new site, it's not just for us, but it's for our children and their children and their children and it goes on," she said.

The $15 million will be funneled to the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency tasked with helping Alaska villages at risk from climate change.

The agency plans to use the money primarily to install more houses at the new site and related hardware such as roads, said Joel Neimeyer, the group's federal co-chair.

Neimeyer couldn't yet say how much of the needed housing stock would be met. Newtok has about 70 houses.

Neimeyer said the Ninglick River is marching toward Newtok at 70 feet a year, on average. Major facilities like the school and airport will likely have to shut down in a few years, he said.

"The river is coming and the community is really under threat," Neimeyer said. "Within three years, this is nothing more than a fishing village."

The money in the spending bill signed by the president Friday comes atop $1.7 million for a disaster-related grant announced last week.

JBER barracks could be part of a plan for housing in the new village of Mertarvik (nine miles from the old village of Newtok) in western Alaska. (Photo provided by Denali Commission)

Seventy-five percent of the grant is from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the rest is from the state, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The village council will receive that money to purchase and demolish seven of the most endangered homes, he said.

Homeowners will be paid fair market value or about $128,000 for each house, on average. They can use the money to move wherever they like, Zidek said.

Residents have said they want to stay together in Mertarvik, on Nelson Island to the southeast, where people can collect fresh water from a spring or hunt for birds and musk oxen, officials said.

That includes the Kasayuli family living in one of the most threatened houses, said John Kasayuli, 22, Thursday.

"We have a bond with everyone in Newtok, with friends and family," he said.

The four-bedroom house is "on the front lines," maybe 30 feet from the river, he said. Like the other homes in the village, it lacks running water and flush toilets.

"It's getting close, and I'm worried about this summer," said his mother, Monica Kasayuli.

She said her six children want to use any grant money the family receives for a house at Mertarvik.

Sally Russell Cox, the state's relocation coordinator for Newtok, said about $47 million has been spent on the move over the years. Most of the money has arrived in relatively small segments.

The figure includes about $12 million in work provided by the military starting in 2009. Over five years, they developed basic facilities at Mertarvik, including an access road and a quarry for construction gravel.

The U.S. Army Corps in 2006 pegged the relocation cost at up to $130 million, an amount north of $150 million today with inflation taken into account.

Three new houses at Mertarvik are already occupied by Newtok families in summer. Another five houses are being finished or moved into place and should soon be available for people to live in, Cox said.

Neimeyer said the Denali Commission plans to use some barracks, no longer needed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage, for houses in Mertarvik.

JBER barracks could be part of a plan for housing in the new village of Mertarvik. (Photo provided by Denali Commission)

"If it works, we're going to go back and get more barracks," he said. "You would get a house just like new for half the price."

Neimeyer hopes a critical mass of households at Mertarvik opens up more funds from federal agencies for say, additional roads or utilities.

"We view the $15 million as Congress telling us, 'Hey make this happen. Go start the second chapter of development here so other federal agencies can follow and do their work, ' " Neimeyer said.

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