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FEMA awards $2.4M to Napakiak as it retreats from Kuskokwim erosion

Napakiak's village center sits just a few hundred feet away from the rapidly eroding Kuskokwim River bank on September 27, 2018.
Katie Basile
Napakiak's village center sits just a few hundred feet away from the rapidly eroding Kuskokwim River bank on September 27, 2018.

The edge of the village of Napakiak sits less than 50 feet from the water.

“I measure the erosion every month starting from the time the ice goes out,” said Walter Nelson, who is a primary coordinator for Napakiak’s retreat from erosion.

The Kuskokwim River wasn’t always so close, but in recent years erosion is marching the banks 25 to 30 feet per year toward the community’s well-water source and school building.

“The priority for Napakiak now is our only well-watering point for the community sits at 49 feet from the erosion,” Nelson said.

In 2020, Napakiak came up with a groundbreaking 50-year plan – a roadmap for retreating to a new site.

“We are currently on an island,” Nelson said. “And the new subdivision site is, like, 2 miles away from the Kuskokwim River and the erosion problems that we're constantly having every year.”

Moving is an expensive endeavor. Napakiak’s retreat is projected to cost upwards of $200 million.

The village received $25 million in 2022 from the Department of the Interior‘s Voluntary Community-Driven Relocation Program, and around $60 million in state funding for the school.

They’ve also tracked down funding for a temporary watering point in the current village, as well as a well-water source in the new subdivision.

“Everything is sort of on the move for us,” Nelson said.

The City of Napakiak, the Native Village of Napakiak, and the Naparyalruar Corporation are all coordinating the retreat. They are seeking out a patchwork of funds from a variety of sources including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of the Interior, and the Denali Commission.

Altogether, Napakiak will eventually have moved or newly built dozens of houses, a new Native corporation store, a water plant, a multipurpose building, and a school. Nelson said that the erosion is currently around 300 feet from the existing corporation store.

That new school building is now under construction. For now, though, students attend classes in a partly-demolished building that’s roughly 80 feet from the edge of the river – about the length of two shipping containers.

Construction on the new school is set to finish in 2025. The pressing need for a new Napakiak school that’s safe from erosion actually prompted a change in the way the Alaska Department of Education evaluates infrastructure needs when it put the new school at the top of the priority list in 2021.

At the end of February, FEMA announced a new $2.4 million award toward the community’s move away from the Kuskokwim.

“The funding awarded today gets us one step closer to a safe, sustainable future for our community,” Nelson said, reached by phone in Napakiak.

Nelson said that the money will go toward around 300 feet of new road and 10 house pads in the new subdivision site.

FEMA Community Resilient Infrastructure Grants Branch Chief in Region 10 Jay Pritchett said that Napakiak is a notable community.

“I think it's a testament, really, of the community's goals for resiliency,” Pritchett said. “The permafrost thawing that's going on in Alaska is expanding on itself. Climate change is clearly having a direct impact on the communities up there and the Native Village of Napakiak, they had the wherewithal and the insight to really look at what was occurring to their community and the land around them. And then looked at ways of leveraging, they had a really solid plan, actually, to put this into implementation, leveraging many different federal resources.”

Napakiak is one of a number of villages in Alaska in the process of planning and carrying out a relocation project. A recent report from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium points to almost 150 villages in the state dealing with accumulating climate-driven threats. The report was harsh. It said that the current system is “inequitable and inefficient.” The federal government isn’t set up to address the needs of those communities, and that’s a point Pritchett makes as well.

“The real challenge, honestly, is time,” Pritchett said. Climate impacts are only becoming more common and more rapid. There’s a lot that goes into the process of obtaining FEMA funding, and the steps and requirements can be opaque. We're trying to be more thoughtful about our outreach to communities because we're realizing information is important, and accessing information is just as important."

FEMA is just one of several federal agencies that can help fund climate-driven relocation or retreat efforts, all with differing requirements. Pritchett said that as climate impacts hit Alaska communities, governmental agencies need to listen, self-reflect, and figure out how to address their needs while complying with federal laws and regulations on environmental protections and historic preservation.

“What can we do better through the policies, if a policy can be changed?” Pritchett asked. But he said federal agencies will need to go beyond that as well: “And then really getting that information up to the real decision-makers and saying, ‘Here's the data that we got, here's the information we got from the communities,' and I think people listening and really looking at the most advantageous approach for our communities to meet those, those goals that they need.”

For now, in Napakiak, Nelson works to navigate the complex grant management systems.

“It's just no easy small task, but, you know, any help that we get, any amount that we get, that's going to help our community out,” Nelson said.

The new, $2.4 million FEMA grant is chipping away at the total cost of getting the community to safer ground, but they’ll need more.

“We still need millions. Millions and millions more; I can't give you an exact number,” Nelson said. “But, you know, that's where we try to get more funds from the state, from FEMA and so forth to help with our retreating efforts.”

As Nelson said, though, every dollar helps the community stay ahead of the advancing banks of the Kuskokwim.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
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