Alaskan village hit by erosion and melting permafrost is denied request for disaster declaration

Alaskan village hit by erosion and melting permafrost is denied request for disaster declaration

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

The Alaskan village Newtok is once again making news because they requested a federal disaster declaration to move away from their sinking and crumbling land. Had it been granted, it would have made the village’s relocation eligible for federal funding. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Newtok lies next to the river Ningliq, but the land on which the village was built upon is unsafe. The dangers of erosion had already been picked up in a 30-year-old river erosion assessment by Woodward-Clyde Consultants. Back then it was mostly the river eroding the land around Newtok. In the past decades, melting permafrost increasingly became a problem, too, because of climate change.

The 450 people of Newtok are well aware of the danger they’re facing, the older generations especially. They have seen the land around them change dramatically in the past decades. Interestingly, many Yup’ik people, which most of Newtok’s inhabitants belong to, used to be nomads moving between winter and summer camps. In the 1970s they were given the choice between settling down  so their children could go to school or having their children taken away by authorities. Now, the ground is crumbling away underneath their feet and they need to relocate, quickly.  But it is expensive: moving the key infrastructure alone could cost up to $130 million.

The funds they applied for are usually reserved for catastrophes, such as landslides or hurricanes. What the community is experiencing at the moment might not be as sudden as a hurricane, but ultimately the outcome isn’t all too different. According to engineers, the village will lose its current drinking water source and up to six homes by fall this year; the barge landing, landfill and sewage lagoon are already gone.

Federal disaster relief was not set up for slow onset events, however, other -more traditional- options turned out to be dead ends. When Newtok applied for a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, they were turned down. Lawyers saw the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act as a last resort, although the request was unusual. Just before President Obama’s administration came to an end, the village was informed that a disaster declaration was not appropriate to address this situation

The existing system fails communities like Newtok, said Mike Walleri, the village’s attorney. “What this means as a practical matter is the village is going to have to wait until these homes are destroyed, rather than taking any preemptive disaster response,” he added.

Little to no options are left for the close-knit community of Newtok. If they do not get funds to resettle, the community will have to scatter across Alaska and move as far as 500 miles away to Anchorage. For now, however, they will appeal the decision, and in the longer term, they will keep trying to move the village piece by piece.

To learn more about Newtok, watch Al Jazeera America’s short documentary about the village from 2015:

Cover photo by Steve Jurvetson (CC by 2.0)

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