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Newtok mothers report no new housing will be built in Mertarvik this summer

Five Alaska Native mothers took to the stage barefoot, in solidarity with their friends and family members who live in Newtok. It’s a community in environmental peril.

“The land is eroding to the sea and there’s gonna ultimately be no more Newtok,” Christina Waska told an audience who’d gathered on the third floor of Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center for the annual Arctic Encounter Symposium.

Waska is the Newtok tribe’s relocation coordinator. Permafrost degradation in the village means the ground is sinking under homes and the banks or the nearby Ninglick River have eroded away at a blistering pace over the last three decades. “I was raised in Newtok, and then several years ago, my parents house – the home I grew up in – was demolished. Then the land eroded away with the sea, so I don’t have a home in Newtok anymore,” she said.

For many years, the village has been working with several state and federal agencies to relocate the entire community to higher, more stable ground at Mertarvik, nine miles across the Ninglick River.

“There is no blueprint on how to do this relocation, relocating the whole community to a whole different place,” said Carolyn George, a Newtok Village Council member. “ We did not know how to do it and it’s been taking too long.”

George is also a mother to five daughters and Newtok’s school secretary. Four of her daughters moved across to Mertarvik without her last fall.

“I got my house in November, but I didn't move,” George said. “I had my kids and their dad move over. I’m in Newtok, because I work at the school. It’s my tenth year. If I move, I'll be out of a job.”

Available housing is the single greatest hurdle to fully relocating all of the remaining Newtok residents. George told the audience there will be no new home construction in Mertarvik this summer, because the tribe was not able to order supplies and line up a barge in time for a delivery this summer. In November, the tribal council also dismissed its project manager and has since hired an Anchorage-based engineering firm to help design and build infrastructure in Mertarvik.

Jackie Schaeffer is the Director of Climate Initiatives at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She’s been working with Newtok for years. She said no one considered the financial pressure the tribe government would face as they navigated managing two communities simultaneously.

“Because they’re in full relocation mode, it puts them in a really fragile position for infrastructure funding, because they’re trying to operate two communities with one funding source, under one tribal governance,” Schaeffer said. “And so that causes all kinds of stress, not only on the infrastructure with both communities, but also the ability to maintain and operate on the side that half the residents still live in.”

There are nearly 150 communities in Alaska considering partial and full relocations due to climate change-driven environmental disasters. Schaeffer said lessons from Newtok and Mertarvik can inform those future projects.

“This is just one community of many that will need to be relocated in the state of Alaska,” Schaeffer said. “And if we can’t figure it out for a community of 400 people, there’s no way, when we hit Louisiana, L.A. and all the other Lower 48 communities, that we’re gonna be able to figure it out.”

She called the mothers of Newtok an “inspiration.”

“They’re going to adapt,” she said.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.