Residents Of An Eroded Alaskan Village Are Pioneering A New One, In Phases As climate change eroded the village of Newtok, its residents started making plans to move it. Many years and millions of dollars later, they are beginning the process of relocating across the river.
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Residents Of An Eroded Alaskan Village Are Pioneering A New One, In Phases

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Residents Of An Eroded Alaskan Village Are Pioneering A New One, In Phases

Residents Of An Eroded Alaskan Village Are Pioneering A New One, In Phases

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now let's visit a coastal community battered by storms and rising waters and thawing permafrost. It's the village of Newtok in western Alaska. Several hundred residents have been trying to relocate for decades. Now some people finally are moving, as Greg Kim of member station KYUK reports.

GREG KIM, BYLINE: It's moving day in Newtok, where eroding land has already claimed several homes and the river is banging on more doors. Newtok is sending some of its residents across the Ninglick River this year to its replacement village Mertarvik.

LISA CHARLES: It felt like it was never going to happen.

KIM: Lisa Charles said her grandparents told her about the plans to move when she was 16. That was in 1994. And after a while, she pretty much forgot about it.

L CHARLES: To me, it started to become reality when the places where we used to go berry picking started to fall into the river.

KIM: Part of the reason it's taken so long is because the federal government has no comprehensive policy to relocate communities that bear the brunt of climate change. And the cost to move Newtok has been estimated at over $100 million. Over decades, only part of that has come through in bits and pieces from various federal agencies. In the meantime, the village of Newtok, sorely in need of funding itself, has been neglected. Newtok tribal administrator Andrew John explains that's because the plan is for it to be abandoned.

ANDREW JOHN: The funding agencies did not want to invest in to a dying infrastructure.

KIM: Many homes in Newtok are a single room, four walls packed with multiple generations. There's no running water, and people use 5-gallon buckets as toilets, called honey buckets.

So far, they've only raised enough money to move a third of the homes, the ones most at risk of falling into the river or being flooded. That means families will be separated indefinitely. As her dad packs for Mertarvik, 15-year-old Joann David (ph) is staying in Newtok with her aunt. She says she doesn't want to go to the temporary school in Mertarvik because it doesn't have school sports.

JOANN DAVID: Like another little step of growing up and learning by ourselves.

KIM: 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. For those who get to move this year, it's only a 25-minute boat ride away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR RUNNING)

KIM: The difference is striking. Relocation coordinator Romy Cadiente shows off the brand-new homes.

ROMY CADIENTE: This is it, guys.

KIM: Fourteen-hundred square feet, four bedrooms complete with kitchen, refrigerator, thermostat control. By next year, there'll be running water and flushing toilets.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD BABBLING)

KIM: Sitting on the bare floor with her three grandchildren, Albertina Charles says she's happy. But she wishes it didn't have to come to this.

ALBERTINA CHARLES: If only there was no erosion, no flood, we would still be over there. But we'll get used to it.

KIM: Outside her new house, Albertina has her own patch of tundra on the hillside. Her feet rest on solid ground, unfamiliar but safe. She bends down, picks a leaf, puts it to her nose and inhales.

For NPR News, I'm Greg Kim in Mertarvik, Alaska.

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