BETHEL, Alaska — The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the pace of moving residents from Newtok, an Western Alaska community threatened by erosion, to another village, officials said. Money also has been an issue.
Nine homes in the new village of Mertarvik that were started last year remain unfinished, and no one has moved from Newtok to Mertarvik since 2019, KYUK Public Media reported. Newtok had an estimated 220 residents last year.
“We couldn’t get any cabinets because of this COVID thing,” said Phillip Carl, Newtok acting tribal administrator.
Patrick LeMay, who is leading the building effort in Mertarvik, said shortages for materials have persisted.
“We got 48 lights that are trapped somewhere in Tennessee floods, to finish the lighting. There’s a shortage of fire extinguishers in the nation,” LeMay said. “The supply chain has been a disaster.”
Many of the workers building homes in Mertarvik are Newtok residents. LeMay said three workers from Newtok contracted COVID-19 in August. Many remaining laborers chose to stop working due to concerns over an outbreak, KYUK reported.
Newtok recently experienced its biggest outbreak since the pandemic began, with 32 residents testing positive last month. About 42% of Newtok’s population is vaccinated, compared to about 50% of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region overall.
Relocation costs are estimated to exceed $100 million. In 2019, Newtok saw an infusion of $15 million in federal funding. It has received smaller grants since.
Carl said Newtok lost over 100 feet of its coast since April.
Despite the challenges, work is underway to complete a duplex for teachers in Mertarvik and to finish the nine homes that were started last year. A regional housing authority is adding two more.