Tale Of Two Alaskan Villages

The warming climate has caused massive erosion along Alaska's coast. Two of the hardest hit villages are taking different approaches; Kivalina is suing and waiting for help while Newtok is piecing together small grants to help residents relocate.

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The Senate just failed to pass climate change legislation with money to relocate coastal villages in Alaska that are slipping into the sea. Erosion, melting permafrost, and flooding threaten more than 100 native communities. Elisabeth Arnold takes a look at two of the most vulnerable.

ELISABETH ARNOLD: Crammed in a tiny plane with Pampers, Pepsi and mayo, we fly above a flat landscape that's more water than land. We're a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Hard to believe that people could live in such a remote place, but they do.

We land on a strip of gravel surrounded by sandbags and water. This is Kivalina, a barrier island that's no longer a barrier. It's a sliver of sand, home to a few hundred Inupiaq Eskimos. Nobody chose to live here. The once nomadic people were told they'd lose their children unless they settled permanently. Seventy-five-year-old Lucy Adams remembers the 200 mile trip, the first leg by dog-sleigh.

Ms. LUCY ADAMS (Kivalina Resident): And then, in July, we take off with skin boats from Point Hope to Kivalina, because we were not in school, us children.

ARNOLD: The Bureau of Indian Affairs put schools in places that were barge-accessible. Sand pits like Kivalina, that's now in some places less than 50 yards across.

Ms. ADAMS: At that time, the village was real wide. It was real wide. And, on the beach, because the sand is so far down to the ocean, they would set up tents. But now there's no room for that even, nothing. And when it gets there it's real scary.

ARNOLD: For decades the Piaquis (ph) protected Kivalina from the wind and waves of storms, but in recent years the ice goes out early and forms late. There's open water, no buffer. A hundred and fifty feet of beach disappeared in a single year.

There are no cars in Kivalina. Fuel is precious, delivered once a year at more than five dollars a gallon. The irony isn't lost on the people here, that they emit the least amount of greenhouse gases, and yet are the first to be directly affected.

Enoch Adams is Lucy's son. He's out today, taking pictures of the most recent damage. Attempts to shore up the beach have failed. Sandbags are scattered and ripped open everywhere. The power-plant and school are dangerously close to the edge. Adams says the weather has changed everything.

Mr. ENOCH ADAMS (Kivalina Resident): Our springs are warmer, earlier. Fall is later. Winters are later. Winters are warmer. We're feeling the effects of it by all this erosion.

ARNOLD: The Kivalina Tribal Council's trying to help the village relocate to higher ground, but cost estimates range from several to hundreds of millions of dollars. Colleen Swan is the tribal administrator.

Ms. COLLEEN SWAN (Tribal Administrator): We have to rely on the government. To help us, we have to rely on FIMA, you know, there has to be a disaster. And we're not going to sit and wait for a disaster to happen. We need to get off this island.

ARNOLD: Inupiaq are not a litigious people, but in this case they've turned to the courts, filing suit against Exxon Mobil and 23 other energy companies, alleging they knowingly contributed to climate change.

Ms. SWAN: It was our last resort. Desperation.

ARNOLD: The core of engineers estimates 184 villages out here are at risk from flooding and erosion, and that Kivalina and two others, Shishmaref and Newtok, will be gone within 10 years. There is another option, what's dryly termed co-location, simply moving people into larger cities. That idea, however, ignores the importance of a thousand-year-old culture, closely knit villages, and the people whose identity is firmly rooted to the land. Enoch Adams has this response.

Mr. ADAMS: Well, how about I move into your house? I mean, that's the kind of thing they're asking us to do.

ARNOLD: Deborah Williams, a former Interior Department Official, heads up Alaska Conservation Solutions, a nonprofit devoted to climate change.

Ms. DEBORAH WILLIAMS (Former Department Official, Alaska Conservation Solutions): The flight of the people of Newtok, Kivalina and Shishmariff underscore two phenomena associated with global warming. The least equipped to address the consequences of global warming are the people first victimized; and, secondly, the global warming consequences are extraordinarily expensive.

ARNOLD: Sally Russell Cox is a planner for the state's division of Community and Regional Affairs. She says government just isn't ready.

Ms. SALLY RUSSELL COX (Planner, Community and Regional Affairs, Alaska): There's no lead agency for village relocation per se, no. So, yes, we're all, kind of, doing this by the seat of our pants, and trying to improvise as best we can.

ARNOLD: Cox has been closely involved with another threatened village, Newtok. A small Inupiaq community a few hundred miles south of Kivalina on the edge of the Baring Sea.

(Soundbite of the sea)

ARNOLD: A string of rickety boardwalks, rising and falling, links this village and is the only dry ground where kids can play.

(Soundbite of gulls)

ARNOLD: Like Kivalina, Newtok is eroding and flooding, but because it's built on permafrost that is no longer permanent, it's also sinking. Sewage leaks into the only source of drinking water. Stanley Tom, the village leader, is watching as his community slowly disappears.

Mr. STANLEY TOM (Village Leader): You see that house over there, with the Styrofoam? It's tilting. We can do nothing. It's already too late because foundation is under the ground and we can do nothing about it.

ARNOLD: Storms have wiped out the barge landing and garbage dump. Trash and human waste float where people hunt geese and butcher seals. But Stanley Tom and others here have taken matters into their own hands. The village has worked relentlessly for more than 10 years, pursuing a land swap with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and acquired a new village site on higher ground, six miles away. One small grant at a time, they found funding for wind generators, a water treatment plant, a boat ramp. Tom looks across the water at the site, a high bluff that will be called Mutarrak (ph) which means, getting water from the spring. He smiles, just thinking about it.

Mr. TOM: Yes. It'll be nice, and these other villages, they can look at our relocation layout and, if they like, let them go for it.

ARNOLD: But it's not that simple. Other villages have no high ground nearby or no land to swap. And despite Newtok's tenacity, relocation is still many years away. Time is running out. When I ask how long it will take, Tom's face changes. He looks at the American flag above the tiny post office, a wooden shack that's sinking in the muck, and wonders aloud why no one seems to care.

Mr. TOM: We're United States citizens. We're the taxpayers. We have military that serve in the Iraq war. So we're part of United States. If we're being wiped out, you know, who's going to replace us?

ARNOLD: For NPR News I'm Elisabeth Arnold.

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