Can One Man Turn the Tide?

Los Angeles Times
October 28, 2004
By Alex Tizon

NEWTOK, Alaska – The boys hunt for mastodon bones on the tundra as the women and girls gather salmonberries from their secret spots in the hills. The men keep busy with various manly things, fishing and fixing roofs and hauling water from the community well. It’s another sunny afternoon in this Eskimo village of 340 on Alaska’s west coast, and there isn’t the slightest hint that life is approaching a cataclysmic change. In as little as 10 years, the village will be swallowed up by a torrent of water from the Ninglick River, and an ancient way of life will be erased.

“It’s like a razor blade down there, just chopping away at the beach,” says Phil Kusayak, the school custodian, eyeing the waves in the near distance. “Pretty soon, it’ll all be water.”

But Newtok residents aren’t panicking, because they have a plan: to move the entire village, buildings and all, to a spot across the river, nine miles away on the north end of Nelson Island. Villagers obtained the site for their new home in a land swap with the federal government in April. The town, which proposed the swap, got 11,000 acres on Nelson in exchange for giving up their village plus 12,000 adjacent acres, all of which will become part of a wildlife refuge that is already mostly tundra and marsh. The move would be unprecedented — if it happens.

Officials acknowledge the urgency of the situation, but the cost and complexity of relocating a village have proved daunting. It would require potentially hundreds of millions of dollars and the coordination of several state and federal agencies, and no agency or politician has dared to take the lead. By default, the Newtok people have been left to save themselves. Right now, their relocation fund stands at zero.

Stanley Tom knows better than anyone what is at stake. Tom, 44, is the village grocer. He is short and bespectacled, with a wispy black mustache and eyes that, of late, have been twitchy. The village has placed the entire burden of the relocation on his shoulders. Ask villagers about the move and they will respond with some version of “Ask Stanley.”

He is a Yupik Eskimo, born and raised in this community on the outer fringe of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. He is a two-time college dropout, but one of only a few in town with any education past high school, and, most important, the only one who remotely understands the language of bureaucrats. In a village that depends on government funding for its most basic services, Tom is the lifeline to the outside world. He has initiated much of the planning for the move.

“I’m it,” Tom says with a sigh. “There’s no one else here who can do it.”

Ted Stevens, one of Alaska’s U.S. senators, convened a hearing in Anchorage this summer so village leaders could plead for assistance from local, state and federal officials, but there was no resolution.

“Of course we’re concerned. We don’t want these villages to be washed away,” Stevens aide Courtney Schikora said. “But it’s not something we have a solution for right now.”

In late August, the state, which has cut its budget over the past two years, denied Newtok a $30,000 grant to do a preliminary survey of its homes. The survey would have given some idea which buildings could be moved. “They turned us down,” Tom says. “I’m so upset, I can’t work.”

Most people in the village didn’t know about the grant, much less the denial. It was pretty much Tom’s problem. And his frustration is only the tip of a larger concern. If the village can’t be relocated for economic or other reasons, the only viable alternative, government officials say, would be to move the residents (but no buildings) to an existing community, such as Bethel, population 5,700, about 100 miles east. Village leaders say such a move would mean the end of the Newtok people as a distinct tribe.

With the future of his people weighing on his mind, and the Ninglick chomping away at the beach, Tom spends his days in a cramped office, surrounded by stacks of reports, trying to find answers to a basic question: How does a village grocer organize a miracle?

*

For thousands of years, ice shelves and permafrost along Alaska’s coast acted as shields against storms and tidal forces, but rising temperatures have melted much of these natural barriers, leaving Newtok’s shoreline vulnerable to a relentless barrage of waves. The Ninglick River, which has eaten away 3,320 feet of beach in the last 50 years, is accelerating toward Newtok at a rate of 110 feet a year. The town dump was washed away, and now the barge landing, critical for receiving supplies, has begun to crumble.

Villages all across Alaska have been affected by the warming trend. Temperatures in polar regions have risen about 2 degrees per decade over the last 30 years. This has exacerbated the naturally occurring erosion that plagues more than 180 of Alaska’s coastal and riverine villages. According to a report released 10 months ago by the General Accounting Office, now the Government Accountability Office, about two dozen villages are threatened and four are in “imminent danger” — and none more so than Newtok, where the erosion rate is faster than anywhere else.

From the air, the village looks like a cluster of barnacles clinging to the edge of an immense green plain. On the ground, Newtok is a motley collection of about 70 small wood-frame homes built along several hundred feet of boardwalks that roll and bend with the terrain.

The Newtoks, whose ancestors called themselves Qaluyaarmiut, or “dip net people,” have occupied this region for at least 2,000 years. The people here know about moving. At least the older ones. Like all traditional Yupik Eskimos, the Newtoks were nomadic until the 20th century, although they confined their travels to campsites on and around Nelson Island and along the Ninglick. When the Newtoks moved from camp to camp, they brought only what they could carry on boats. Their homes were made of sod.

Newtok became permanent 55 years ago. Western ways, such as mandatory school attendance, required a stationary existence. Now the Newtoks have something they’ve never had before: infrastructure.

The plan, in theory, calls for relocating those buildings that would be more economical to move than to rebuild, such as the school, constructed in 2001; the new medical clinic, finished just this year; the “washeteria,” with its washers, dryers and water tanks; and the town’s two electrical generators and their outbuildings. Why new facilities were built even though the Ninglick was fast approaching is a testament to poor planning and, in some ways, to a collective denial that the village was doomed.

In addition to those buildings, villagers would like to move their homes. Only houses built on pilings would be considered. Many of the older homes may be too fragile to uproot. Large buildings would probably be broken into sections, then transported either by barge during the summer or on giant sleds pushed or pulled by tractors across the frozen Ninglick during the winter. The move could take place over months or even years, as funds become available.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a preliminary study on Newtok’s new site, declaring it safe to build on. The Federal Aviation Administration has been in contact with village leaders about a new airstrip.

Tribal leaders, who commissioned an engineering study this year, said the move could cost $50 million to $100 million. Estimates from the GAO indicate the number could be as high as $400 million. Nobody knows where the money will come from. After Newtok, there would be Kivalina, Koyukuk, Shishmaref and 20 others. The cost to relocate, or barricade, all the villages threatened by erosion would be unimaginable.

“What’s being talked about here … hasn’t been done before,” says Christie Miller of Alaska’s Department of Community and Economic Development. Miller visited Newtok in August and was alarmed at the erosion rate.

Andrea Elconin, project manager for the Army Corps in Anchorage, says everyone is waiting for Congress to “tag one agency to take the lead” in dealing with the problem of threatened Native villages. Without a guiding agency, she and others say, projects such as Newtok’s relocation could drift for years.

Meanwhile, Stanley Tom spends much of his time talking on the phone and corresponding by e-mail. “I guess I’m the lead agency,” he says, chuckling nervously.

He communicates with a large array of engineers, scientists, politicians and bureaucrats. After one phone call, he takes a trip to the barge landing, a short ride away on an all-terrain vehicle. The ground is mushy all the way to the river shore. The Ninglick, an unusually wide, slate-colored waterway that connects Baird Inlet with the Bering Sea, spreads out to the horizon, with the shore of Nelson Island visible as a thin, dark line in the distance.

“Where’s the landing?” someone asks.

“We’re on it,” Tom says.

Where once there was a gently sloping beach with a dock, there is now an abrupt cutoff, like a small cliff. The dock, its foundation undercut by waves, has fallen to the bottom of the cliff. Next to the old pilings lies a shipping container on its side. It too has fallen off the edge. Two more shipping containers sit at the edge, ready to fall any day. All it will take is a storm or a strong wind.

Tom lets his eyes travel back and forth from the chopping waves to the nearest house, 800 feet away. Behind his eyes, he is making silent calculations.

*

The woman who lives in that house is Betty Ann Tom, one of Stanley Tom’s many relatives in the village. She says she may be 79, but she’s not sure. She can see the river from her kitchen window. “There used to be small, rolling hills there,” she says. “Now, only the river is there.”

Betty Ann spent her childhood in sod houses, but has grown accustomed over the five decades in Newtok to her wood-frame house, her vinyl floor, her kitchen appliances and satellite television. A grandson asks if she’ll be sad to leave the village. She ponders the question, and says, “The answer is between no and yes.”

Stanley Tom then visits Elsie Tommy, who thinks she might be 82. Tommy says it will be difficult to learn a new place, especially for the elderly. It has taken her people a long time to figure out which streams yield the best fish, which meadows to hunt and where the sweetest salmonberries grow, she says. She’ll worry about the young people because they won’t know where to step. “The ground may be soft or it may be hard. The ice might be thin or thick. What if they fall through and nobody sees them?” Tommy asks.

At least life on Nelson Island, which is home to three other Eskimo villages, will be similar to life now, she says. They will still fish and hunt and gather berries. This is much better than being moved to a city. Tommy, though, isn’t particularly worried. It’s all being taken care of, she says. But she and her cousin, Agnes Tommy, also probably 82, do wonder about the graveyard. A few hundred yards inland from the main part of the village, in a gently rolling field of emerald-green tundra, stands a small forest of tall, white crosses. They rise up from the ground in all angles and sizes, the paint stripped, chipped and weathered. The village has been burying its dead in that field for decades.

Elsie Tommy wonders what will happen to the graveyard. Will that be moved too? She looks at her cousin, who stares back blankly. Then both women turn their heads toward Stanley Tom, who sits in a chair across the room. He smiles sheepishly. Tom’s expression, eyes shifting behind his glasses, indicates that he doesn’t know. Back in his cramped office, with the light of his computer screen staring at him, Tom adds one more to the growing list of questions that, for now, have no answers.