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For Alaskan Coastal Village Residents, Erosion Hits Home


Alaska has seen warm weather and record low sea ice this fall, and that is bad for coastal communities, where the land is eroding. Rachel Waldholz of Alaska's Energy Desk traveled to one place that's desperately trying to move.


RACHEL WALDHOLZ, BYLINE: Flying in, the village of Newtok looks impossibly fragile. It's a tiny human toehold in a vast, flat landscape, and it's shrinking - fast.

ANDREW JOHN: At daybreak this morning, the first thing I did was come out here with my measuring tape.

WALDHOLZ: Andrew John, Newtok's tribal administrator, is standing on the river bank.

JOHN: And I took some measurements and, oh, my goodness. I don't recognize any of this.

WALDHOLZ: Erosion has always been a problem here, but now the river freezes later. Without ice to buffer the shore, fall storms eat away at the thawing permafrost. John estimates that just this season the river has torn off 40 feet of tundra. The nearest homes, they're less than 40 feet away. In one of them, Katie Ayuluk is serving dinner, baked salmon and duck.

KATIE AYULUK: Eat. You have to try that.

WALDHOLZ: When she was little, the river was so far away you could barely see it. Now Katie and her husband, Dalen, say it feels like the storms are at their doorstep.

DALEN AYULUK: And when those swells hit the side of the land, you'll just see water shoot up.

K. AYULUK: And even up to this day, it surprises me that there's big waves. So every day, I'm scared.

WALDHOLZ: So scared, she wants to move, but not to a far-away city like Anchorage. Life here is distinct. Nearly all of Newtok's 400 or so residents are Alaska Native. Families depend on hunting and fishing. Stop by the school, and you can hear the Pledge of Allegiance in the local language, Yup'ik.


WALDHOLZ: People here worry that if they're forced to scatter, they'll lose that connection to their language and culture. So in 2003, Newtok negotiated a land swap with the federal government, hoping to relocate the whole village together.

Andrew John takes me out to the new site. It's a bumpy half-hour boat ride upriver into a brutal wind.

JOHN: We're going to heaven. (Laughter). That's what it feels like when we're there, you know? It's beautiful.

WALDHOLZ: Over the past decade, Newtok has pieced together enough funding to start building. There are a handful of modest wood houses, framed this summer, but it will likely cost more than a hundred million dollars to move the whole village, money they don't have. If Newtok were destroyed in a single hurricane, that money might come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Congress, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has pressed FEMA for disaster relief.


LISA MURKOWSKI: Clearly these are situations that anyone would look at and say, this a disaster. And if it's not a disaster immediately, it's clearly a disaster in the making.

WALDHOLZ: But FEMA says federal disaster relief isn't meant to deal with the gradual impacts of climate change. Last year, the Obama administration did offer a grant to move an entire community - in coastal Louisiana - but that was a one-time solution. Joel Neimeyer heads the Federal Denali Commission in Alaska. He says the country needs a strategy to plan for climate impacts.

JOEL NEIMEYER: We have these examples all across the country where you're having extreme weather events, and, as a country, we haven't yet resolved the question of how we want to respond to these.

WALDHOLZ: At the new site, Andrew John and Dalen Ayuluk say with no coordinated response, their village faces a catch 22. It can't get funding for things like roads or power until enough people live here, but there's no money for housing unless you have that infrastructure.

JOHN: Frustrated is an understatement because we're here fighting for our way of life.

D. AYULUK: We grew up here. We fish here, we hunt here, and we want to live together. So it's like asking, why destroy that?

WALDHOLZ: People here think they have maybe three or four years before Newtok becomes uninhabitable. At that point, they'll have to move, whether there's a new home waiting for them or not. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Waldholz in Newtok.

GREENE: And that story comes to us from Alaska's Energy Desk, a public media collaboration that focuses on energy and the environment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Waldholz