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Coastal Alaskans face physical, cultural erosion

Villages besieged by modern ills and climate shifts

NEWTOK, Alaska -- The last time chronic flooding forced this tiny village to relocate, sled dogs pulled the old church to its new location 3 miles away, far from the raging Ninglick River.

That was in 1950 and life was simpler in Newtok, mostly a collection of sod dwellings. Modern structures gradually took over the new site as the river again crept to the edge of the Yupik Eskimo community. Persistent erosion has eaten an average of 70 feet of bank a year, and now melting permafrost is subsiding, further subjecting the village to severe flooding from intensifying storms.

"This place is sinking," said Joseph Tommy, 48, who was born in Newtok.

So once again, Newtok must move, leaving residents and officials grappling with an unprecedented crisis that looms over scores of native villages along Alaska's increasingly battered western coast.

These once-nomadic people can no longer pack up and go. The crucial difference this time: finding the funds to move and to replace millions of public dollars invested in schools, clinics, and government offices. Replacement costs are beyond the reach of these remote, cash-strapped communities that typically rely on subsistence foods for economic survival -- and they are costs that no single federal or state entity is equipped to shoulder.

"We've become complicated with the rest of the world," Nick Tom, Newtok's former tribal administrator, said as he led visitors through mud and snow, pointing out shifting houses and the crumbled soil fringing the Ninglick. "We can't even move an inch without any money."

It's a dilemma taking on a new urgency as the effects of climate change escalate in a region many consider a harbinger of global warming. Erosion and flooding are nothing new here, but communities are increasingly vulnerable to melting permafrost and shorter periods of the shore-fast ice that historically protected them from powerful storms.

Erosion and flooding affect 86 percent -- or 184 -- of 213 Alaska native villages to some degree, according to a 2003 report by the US Government Accountability Office. The Army Corps of Engineers is trying to determine which communities need the most help from state and federal agencies.

"When there is a problem that develops over years and decades, such as Alaskan erosion, the perception of urgency is not as acute," said Bruce Sexauer, a senior planner with the corps. "The impacts of a hurricane can be felt nationwide, whereas similar situations in remote communities are oftentimes only known by a select few."

Newtok and two other western Alaska villages, Shishmaref and Kivalina, face the shortest life spans at their current locations.

Some officials say they believe conditions are most urgent in Newtok, wedged between two rivers. The vast, rushing Ninglick has cut into the smaller Newtok River, turning it into a slough. This is the historical sewage dumping place for Newtok's 315 residents, who use buckets as toilets.

Compounding the problem, fall storms send flood waters surging through the Ninglick and up the Newtok, turning the village into an island, said Brenda Kerr, the corps' Newtok planner, part of a new multiagency effort exploring possible actions.

"The water is scary enough in and of itself, and then you consider what's in it. The public health concern is probably one of the biggest triggers here," Kerr said.

Newtok is ahead of other villages facing impending moves, having completed a federal land trade in 2004 for a hilly area called Mertarvik on Nelson Island 9 miles to the south. But that's just on paper. The Corps of Engineers estimates that moving would cost as much as $130 million, or more than $412,000 per resident. That price tag reflects the challenge of carrying some existing structures and tons of construction supplies to undeveloped tundra -- there are no roads here, no landing strip, and no barge landing for large vessels -- to build a community from the ground up.

About 370 miles to the north, the relocation cost would be even steeper for Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village of 600 located on a narrow island just north of the Bering Strait. Estimates run as high as $200 million to start from scratch with new infrastructure -- or about half that amount to move residents to the coastal hub towns of Nome or Kotzebue.

Ultimately, multimillion-dollar projects to protect or move a few isolated people must be justified, especially after Hurricane Katrina. But it is not the government's role to bankroll the entire cost of building a community, officials said.

"I think there's very little likelihood that the federal government or the state government could come up with $150 million to say, 'OK, Shishmaref or Newtok or Kivalina, we're going to move you next year,' " said Gary Brown, with the state's emergency management office.

Joining another community is unacceptable, said Shishmaref village transportation planner Tony Weyiouanna, who has lobbied hard for state and federal funding. In their nomadic past, natives generally stayed within a certain region. Today they hunt the same animals as their ancestors, create their artwork with the same materials, know the land intimately.

Being absorbed into another culture, even one only 100 miles away, could amount to cultural death, exposing residents to urban ills including alcohol, which is banned in Shishmaref and other dry villages. Residents fear the subsistence lifestyle their traditions and economy rely on would fall off, pushing them to welfare.

The cultural erosion Weyiouanna and others dread has other causes, too.

Even without relocations, technology has brought a global media influence to even the most isolated villages. Elders say young people suffer a disconnect that gets some of the blame for chronic problems in native society -- alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence, high dropout rates.

But Alaska natives, who represent 11 distinct cultures and 20 languages, are fighting back. They're hosting culture camps and rural student exchanges. Villages have resurrected dances and festivals that were banned a century ago by missionaries. Schools have launched native language immersion programs.

Debra Dommek sees herself as a tribal elder in training even though she's only 18. She learned about those ancient arts, focusing on dance, in an after-school program run by the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

"This is who I am, who my children will be, "Dommek said. "Sometimes I feel pressure taking on such a position, but somebody's got to do it."

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