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Residents of an eroded Alaskan village are pioneering a new one, in phases

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Harry Nevak (left) starts filling his boat in Newtok with his family's belongings in order to move them over to Mertarvik.
Harry Nevak (left) starts filling his boat in Newtok with his family's belongings in order to move them over to Mertarvik.
Marc Lester | Anchorage Daily News

It's finally moving day in Newtok, Alaska, the village where erosion has already claimed several homes and the river is banging on more doors. Newtok is sending a third of its residents across the Ninglick River this year, to its replacement village, Mertarvik. Decades of planning have built up to this moment.  

"It felt like it was never going to happen," says resident Lisa Charles.

Charles' grandparents told her about the plans to move when she was 16. That was in 1994.

"I remember being really excited, thinking it was gonna happen in one year, but every year there would be a delay," she remembers. "Is it 30 years later, no 25 years later, we're finally gonna move."

Moving an entire village is a huge project, but why did it take a quarter of a century to move just some of the residents?  Part of the reason is that the federal government has no comprehensive policy — or funding — to relocate communities bearing the brunt of climate change. 

The cost of moving Newtok has been estimated at over $100 million.  Getting even part of that has meant courting dozens of agencies for a house here, a stretch of road there. And managing the grants and the paperwork has not always been easy.

"We lost by the millions," says former Tribal Administrator Stanley Tom.

As Newtok has waited, its boardwalk has sunk into the ground. Residents describe it as "spongy" because of the soft mud underneath.
As Newtok has waited, its boardwalk has sunk into the ground. Residents describe it as "spongy" because of the soft mud underneath.
Marc Lester | Anchorage Daily News

Tom says millions of dollar in grants were mismanaged and lost in the early days of the relocation process. He blames it on disagreements within the village's leadership. That led to a power struggle in which the Newtok Village Council eventually wrested control of the relocation effort from the Newtok Traditional Council. During that time of instability, funding stalled for years

Paul Charles, the current president, says that's all behind them. "We work together as a community, as one village," he says.

But before everyone can move over to Mertarvik, there will be a transition period with two separate villages.

"I brought some people yesterday, and it kinda made me wanna move," says Myron Lincoln. He's part of the majority who is staying in Newtok this year. About a third of families, those most at risk from Newtok's erosion and flooding, get to move first.  Everyone else must wait. 

That means staying in a place that's long been neglected. Tribal administrator Andrew John says no one wanted to invest in a place that was set to be abandoned.  

Newtok has no running water, so people use 5 gallon buckets — called honey buckets — as toilets. Many homes are overcrowded, packed with multiple generations and plagued by mold problems because of flooding.

Lincoln is making the best of the situation. He and his family are moving into his cousin Lisa Charles' home in Newtok, since Charles is moving over to Mertarvik. He's not worried about staying in a home that was evacuated due to flooding risk. After all, he says, it's only temporary.

"Until next year, when we get our own spot at Mertarvik," he says.

Lisa Charles and her family are among those moving to safer ground across the river.
Lisa Charles and her family are among those moving to safer ground across the river.
Marc Lester | Anchorage Daily News

Lincoln is not the only one in Newtok who claims he'll move next year. But Newtok's relocation director Romy Cadiente says the town actually doesn't have funding to build more houses, at least not yet.

"We'll get them over there. Just be patient with us," he says, "because these things take a while."

Not all those who are moving this year are sure they're ready. 

"There's a part of me that doesn't want to leave home, because I've lived here for all my life," says Michael Fairbanks.

But Fairbanks knows he has to. He's moving to solid ground to live a safer life. "There's no other words to describe it but feeling happy and sad at the same time," he says.

When it gets dark in Newtok, people walk to the south side of the village to look across the river. Homes in Mertarvik light up like stars. 

It's a 25-minute boat ride from Newtok to Mertarvik, and the difference is striking.  

Mertarvik's gravel roads are immaculate. The new homes are a spacious 1,400 square feet. Cadiente, the relocation director, shows off a 4-bedroom complete with stove, refrigerator, wood stove, and thermostat control. By next year, there will be running water and flushing toilets.

"One of the real neat features is this," Cadiente says as he walks into one of the bedrooms and smiles wide in front of a built-in closet. 

Several structures in Newtok are on the very edge of the riverbank. Some homes have already been demolished to avoid them falling into the Ninglick River.
Several structures in Newtok are on the very edge of the riverbank. Some homes have already been demolished to avoid them falling into the Ninglick River.
Marc Lester | Anchorage Daily News

Albertina Charles's new home is right on the water. But in Mertarvik that doesn't mean a threat, just a good view. 

Inside, sitting on the bare floor of the living room with her three grandchildren, Charles says she's happy. But she wishes it didn't have to come to this.

"If only there was no erosion, no flood, no permafrost melting, we would still be over there," she says. "But we'll get used to it." 

Outside, Charles has her own patch of solid tundra on the hillside, unfamiliar ground, but safe.  She bends to picks up a leaf, puts it to her nose, and inhales.

Copyright 2019 KYUK. To see more, visit KYUK.