‘Everything is melting’ — Alaskans plead for help

Source: Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, December 8, 2017

George Carl took a short trip this week to Washington, D.C., but he’s worried that his home in Alaska might be gone by the time he returns.

Carl was part of a delegation from the village of Newtok, Alaska, who traveled to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars yesterday to ask for federal help in relocating their homes because of climate change. The Yup’ik Alaska Native village is seeking a disaster declaration that could unlock federal aid because thawing permafrost and rapid erosion will make it uninhabitable in just a few years. Newtok could become a test case for the federal government to rescue people who could soon no longer have a home because of climate change.

“Everything is melting,” said Carl, who is the Village Council vice president.

Newtok has just 450 residents and is located in one of the most isolated spots in America. But it is on a spit of land that has been continuously occupied for millennia, where the ancestors of those who live there now have survived off the land and for generation upon generation. Within the next few years, Newtok is expected to be wiped away due to climate change. It is located near the Arctic Circle, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

In Washington, where some lawmakers, the president and a number of his Cabinet members question whether humans are the primary drivers of climate change, Newtok represents the human cost of inaction. Its residents are among the first climate refugees in America. Across town, just in front of the Capitol, a group of Arctic residents and their supporters held a rally opposing the GOP tax bill, which could open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge refuge to oil drilling.

Newtok is losing 70 feet of land a year to the Ninglick River, according to engineers. Locals lose sleep listening to weather, because a shift of the wind can inundate some parts of the village within minutes. Some stay up nightly on weather watch to monitor erosion and flooding. The pooling of water around homes helps black mold thrive, which causes high rates of respiratory problems and illness among local residents. Village elders are worried that if they don’t receive help quickly, nothing will be left of their heritage and their traditions for the next generation.

“I’m always wary when the storm comes, and one thing that bothers me is, how will I protect my children if something happens? That’s the only thing; we need help for our children,” said Katherine Charles, a local resident who has pushed for greater federal help for years.

A new village is already under construction 9 miles away and will take years to complete. The village needs about $100 million to move, because any building project in the region is prohibitively expensive as a result of harsh conditions and the fact that virtually everything needed to construct homes and infrastructure — from heavy moving equipment to nails — must be flown in or brought by ship. Four new homes were built this summer, and a plan to rehabilitate former military barracks and ship them to the new village, Mertarvik, is already underway.

To offset those costs, the village wants the government to declare the effects of climate change a slow-moving natural disaster, which would unlock funds but also would have implications for municipalities throughout the country as sea levels rise, wildfires burn and heavy rains flood areas. Near the end of the Obama administration, White House officials realized the dire situation faced by the village but did not approve funding, and the Trump administration has done nothing to help them, said Mike Walleri, the village’s attorney.

Newtok, located on the west coast of Alaska, is also a harbinger of the future for a number of Iñupiat villages in the American Arctic, many of which are located just a few feet above sea level. The Arctic Ocean is chewing up village boundaries year by year. Sea ice has receded dramatically, leaving the villages exposed to the angry ocean for a month more each year than just a decade or two ago. Waves pound the shore, washing away homes, roads and the ruins of ancient homes built at what was once a safe distance from the water.

Slow-moving disasters

Typically, federal disasters are declared after a major destructive event, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In Newtok, the disaster has been slow-moving over the course of years. Homes have tumbled into the sea, but so has the sewage lagoon, and the village’s drinking water source is just 20 steps from the river’s edge. Based on the current rate of erosion, it will be destroyed within the year.

Seven major disasters have been declared in the area near Newtok, but not a single cent has flowed to the village as a result, Walleri said. The Obama White House did request a tribal disaster declaration for the first time as a result of climate change on behalf of Newtok, but it was denied because the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not have a national policy to deal with disasters such as that now being experienced by Newtok. Federal officials are always looking at how to provide help for the last disaster, not the future disaster, he said.

“These slow-moving disasters are real, they’re happening and they’re making people, children, sick, and they have to be addressed,” Walleri said, adding, “The vast majority of people believe in climate change; an even larger majority of Americans don’t think it will ever effect them. Until people understand it is affecting people, we will not have a resolution to the issue.”

The Stafford Act gives federal officials broad authority to declare disasters in a wide variety of circumstances, Walleri said. For instance, he said, the federal government has recognized droughts and fishery reductions as slow-moving disasters. He said FEMA officials have declared disasters before hurricanes make landfall, and they could use the same standards to declare a disaster in Newtok.

“There is no time limit on a disaster. It’s totally up to the White House and FEMA. It is the culture of FEMA, it’s not the Stafford Act itself, that says they don’t recognize slow-moving disasters,” he said. “There is no regulation, there is no statute that prohibits a slow-moving disaster from [being] declared a disaster.”

A FEMA spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

It’s the duty of the U.S. government to protect the next generation, and Newtok is part of the first wave of climate migration in the country, said Sherri Goodman, former U.S. deputy undersecretary of Defense and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center.

“You are the front line of climate change. This is where it’s really happening,” she said. “It’s clearly not a hoax, and it’s not perpetrated by the Chinese, either. Climate change is a humanitarian health crisis in our own country.”