Patrick LeMay: Newtok, the time to relocate is now

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By PATRICK LEMAY

Newtok Village has experienced two newsworthy events within the last four months. In September 2022, flooding and erosion severely impacted the community because of remnants from Typhoon Merbok.

A couple of weeks ago, a fire destroyed the school’s power plant.

In the big picture, these two noteworthy events are merely a small part of the ongoing slow disaster that has been destroying this community since 1954 when the school was located well over one mile from the river.

Now, the school is located with a meager 35 feet of land protecting this valued community emergency shelter and education center from being forever lost to the river, just like many houses that used to be located adjacent to the river.

The land between the 1954 river shoreline and the school once held the community’s landfill, sewage lagoon, barge landing, water source, and homes; all these pieces of critical infrastructure are long gone due to the land eroding away. It is documented that well over $30 million has been spent on planning. Some would estimate that up to $80 million has been spent on planning since the 1980s.  

Now is past the time for action.  It is time to listen to the elders of the community. Elders have clearly stated for decades that the No. 1 priority of Newtok Village is to relocate to a safe location chosen based on science and professional engineering judgement. 

The new community site of Mertarvik is approximately eight miles from the current village site on bedrock instead of the silt river delta that was chosen in the 1950s without an engineering assessment; the location was simply chosen based on it being the farthest location that the barge with construction materials to build the school could be reached. Erosion of the village site was destined to occur eventually based upon the very obvious geological features of the land itself.  

The question was not whether erosion of the village location would occur; but, rather when?  Erosion was indeed inevitable.  The time is now to build housing stock in Mertarvik so that the residents of Newtok will not be left behind when future storm events occur now that the community no longer has a school with a reliable heating source to evacuate to.  

Newtok’s extremely obvious need for additional housing in the safe pioneering Mertarvik location on solid ground is based on severe coastal erosion that is occurring frequently.  The situation is dire and beyond critical.  There is no more time to spend on planning.  Action is required now.  Newtok has been in flux for at least three decades since the need for relocation became obvious.  Declaration of this need unfortunately disincentivized investment in the maintenance of infrastructure in Newtok.  This lack of investment resulted in a severely distressed housing stock, poor living conditions in homes that have a documented case study of residents having a 25% increased rate of upper respiratory diseases due to mold in homes caused by flooding, and severe overcrowding with three generations living in one home.

Newtok is relocating to the new high ground community in Mertarvik due to persistent erosion precipitated by permafrost degradation, reduced sea ice in the Bering Sea, as the river is tidally influenced, and flooding. These conditions have led to a deadly, real-life problem, and time is of the essence.  

The Ninglick River is consuming community land and facilities as erosion advances towards the community’s last remaining infrastructure. Newtok  cannot be considered a viable place to live anymore. With a documented erosion rate of 70-90 feet per year, the erosion rate at Newtok is the highest in Alaska.  

The unique combination of thawing permafrost, flooding, and erosion that all occur together simultaneously is known as Usteq and is catastrophic to the Newtok community’s population. Furthermore, the compounded hazard of Usteq is much greater than the individual component processes; permafrost thaw, flooding, and erosion are all parts of an escalating feedback loop.

Newtok simply must relocate, and housing is the number one priority needed to reunite this community as one family on the same side of the river. If the definition of infrastructure is roads, utilities, and public works, then very little additional infrastructure is needed in Mertarvik to allow the remaining 155 people left behind in Newtok to relocate.

Please don’t misunderstand me. More infrastructure is required in Mertarvik to support the anticipated total population once the relocation of human life is complete. The critical Tribal infrastructure required at the present time to complete the immediate relocation of human life is houses for the people to live in and a school.  

If the No. 1 priority is housing, then the No. 2 priority is a school. Currently, Mertarvik has a temporary school set up for the fortunate families that have already relocated. However, it is at capacity. With school construction taking two to three years to build in a remote location, the need for school funding is NOW. 

Patrick M. LeMay, PE is the Newtok relocation project manager.

34 COMMENTS

  1. Yes it’s time to move but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. Anyone is flown out over the bush can see where Creek channels and river channels from millennia ago on stood and are dried up now. They look like old twisting intertwine snakes. Rivers and Creeks change their course frequently. Natives understood that and simply moved as the river moved. Once we started putting down roots, we subject ourselves to climate change. I once lived in perryville and it was originally moved before being named from the valley of 10,000 smokes because of a volcano. The native villages of Manokotak and Koliganek removed due to flooding and or seasonal changes. It’s nothing new that happens all the time but that was all before infrastructure was established and money spent. The times have changed but they need has not the need to move it is inevitable.

    • Move the people to where they can find work and education. Fairbanks, Anchorage, The Valley, Soldotna-Kenai or Seattle for that matter. Moving to another place in rural Alaska that does not have an economic base or future is folly.

      • They can apply for jobs in those places and move if they like – forced relocations “for their own good” is not something we should be doing.

  2. So how much more in public funds is all of this awesomeness and “critical Tribal infrastructure” going to cost the rest of us, Patrick?

    • I would guess mostly Federal money and disaster low interest loans the same as what happens here in Florida when a hurricane comes and wipes out of town. I don’t think there’s any need for alaskans to get their panties in a bunch.

      • Private insurance covers a predominant amount of hurricane recovery. How much private insurance does Newtok have. How much will they have at the proposed new location?

    • Why is this coming across as a plea? And shouldn’t the native corporation be handling this? And how exactly did Newtok burn down their own generator plant? Diesel won’t spontaneously combust and the scariest thing about a diesel plant is the slickness of the floor.

      Can you tell us what went wrong that resulted in the diesel plant burning, Mr. LeMay?

  3. That is one view. Another might be that there is no economic base for any future Newtok in the delta for the very reasons the current location is not viable. A better use of money would be a one time payment to move the people to an already viable community that has an economic base that will allow the children the opportunity of an education and jobs in the future. The ties to the past can be individual allotments to traditional fish camps and berrying sites. Seasonal use could be sustained indefinitely. The money the author chronicles could have been used to move the village all those years ago by moving the people to a viable economic future. The same with all the other villages that are impacted by erosion. 200 years ago the people would have packed the boats and moved to another bend of the river.

      • So because of where they are from. You would advocate for their perpetual poverty?
        Nice Greg. I just gave you a solution to a viable future and a meaningful link to the past and you call ME a hater. Nice.
        BTW my wife was one of those “village people” who obtained an education and had a long career as a professional.

        • Your wife left. Anyone that wants whatever it is you’re referring to as a viable economic future needs to leave, too.

          There is no such thing as a viable economic future in a rural Alaska village. Villages don’t exist to produce future prosperity. They exist to perpetuate a dying lifestyle solely for those that don’t want to be integrated into a viable economic present.

          There is nothing there worth $10mm, much less 80 or more.

      • Actually, Greg, the vast majority of them will only remain village people as long as they don’t have to pay for most of the niceties of civilization they also enjoy at great public expense but please don’t let me ruin this laughable fantasy of yours.

  4. “……..It is documented that well over $30 million has been spent on planning. Some would estimate that up to $80 million has been spent on planning since the 1980s. Now is past the time for action………”
    My goodness, there’s a whole new generation of planners, movers, and shakers who need their input pontificated and heard. The new climate religion must have its altar served before any decisions are rendered and money used to actually do anything.

    • Yes and it’s called money laundering. A normal person could see must of these villages are built in a bad place so who said to build there? Millions to figure out it’s wrong. Go figure

  5. The government is too good at wasting taxpayer money to throw in the towel and tell these people to move to another village.

  6. It seems the prudent course of action is first to insure a safe evacuation location in Newtok if the school location is in peril. Second Mertarvik needs high quality permenant facilities build. Finally high quality housing needs to be built in Mertarvik. Then people can move if they want. The only big question is who is going to pay for this?. How about we reduce government money for alternative energy, building up Mertarvik would be a way better use of money.

      • Pretty sure all that want to work in the fishing industry. A subsistence lifestyle isn’t something that you can move. That’s like telling a southern person to stop liking shrimp and grits.

        • You are just wrong. Thousands of native folks live in Fairbanks, the Valley, Anchorage, Juneau and participate in subsistence and a cash economy. People actually drive to from ANC to Prudhoe to go whaling. Check out the Kenai and Kasilof dipnet scene.

  7. Newtok has a population of about 350. Roughly speaking, half of my subdivision in Anchorage has about the same. Can we get $80 million for some work in our area? Or even $30 million? We promise to make the place look nice. We are really nice people.

    • JMARK, 80 million dollars divided equally amongst 350 residents only equals $228,571.43 per resident. Not sure how giving you or anyone else in your neighborhood that paltry sum would be able to spruce up much. Oh sure you could spend it on a fleet of new shiny SUV’s to park in your driveway in order to block the street view of your shack, but even with 223K you could only only purchase two Chevy Suburban’s, leaving scarcely enough to purchase a couple of Four Wheelers and a trailer to tow them on. In the Biden / Peltola era 223K is chump change.

      You claim that you are a really nice person, if true, then stop being selfish and worried about what others may receive as an entitlement and immediately begin to feel guilty that you live in a neighborhood with paved streets with easy access to a Pull Tab Palace!

      • Useful points Puk. The way things are going in Anchortown, if there is anyone still living here in ten years, most of the streets to the abandoned houses will have reverted to gravel and small ponds. After all, the Brandon/Harris regime has provided us with such a vibrant economy. (A curious question: Based on current trends will the Anchorage School District have any remaining students in ten years? Trend lines do not look so good…)

  8. Where is the TRIBAL CORPORATION in all of this. How about using the Corporation’s money. If they didn’t want to dip into the Corporate Piggy Bank, they could sell some prime real estate which they have millions of acres of.

  9. Native Corporations get off your a—–. Build tiny houses up on the bluffs above where they are.
    Use solar panels for lights and heat. Punch wells and install septic systems. Stop being whiny and lazy with THEIR money.

  10. I too believe that native corporations can and should do more instead of just passing out their quarterly checks. But when it comes to moving an entire village and rebuilding a school, that help has to come from outside. The federal government isn’t going to move everybody out of Florida because hurricanes come every year and they’re not going to move everybody out of Kansas because of tornado comes by. When over the course of generations, habitable land ceases to exist, then the federal government steps in and relocates. The federal government did this during the great flood of 1993 in the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys. Farmland was bought up and turned into wetlands. I guess it was cheaper doing that then paying the insurance claims. The problem with this and many villages is they want to be located near a river system for fishing and using their boats. Nobody wants to travel 10 miles from some bluff to get down to where their boats are parked. In Manokotak, the school was built 5 miles away from the main village.

  11. Newtok is a city located in Alaska. With a 2023 population of 167, it is the 203rd largest city in Alaska and the 24824th largest city in the United States. Newtok is currently declining at a rate of -7.73% annually and its population has decreased by -20.1% since the most recent census, which recorded a population of 209 in 2020.
    If we spent $80Million so far…that is close to $500,000. per resident. We have got to stop this insanity!

    • You nailed it, Ed!

      This goof Patrick M. LeMay, PE has laid out quite the tear-jerker but his sad story is just a small snapshot of the endless financial bleeding we’ll be subjected to if more prudent minds don’t prevail and push back.

      We don’t even know how much we’re going to get our purses and wallets lightened by for the new school that Patrick is moaning for but consider the fact that assorted bad actors within the State government have been pushing to spend $54,900,000 in State funds to build Napakiak a new school for 91 students which amounts to $603,000+ PER STUDENT – just to build it – and we can reasonably guess that Newtok will be in line to receive a similarly ridiculous gift from the rest of us.

      And you’ll no doubt recall that Suzanne did a superb job of filling us in on related massive handouts to Newtok and Napakiak from the Feds back in November: https://mustreadalaska.com/napakiak-newtok-receive-25-million-each-from-department-of-interior-to-help-move-away-from-water

      Now divide that brand new $25,000,000 taxpayers’ gift to Newtok by the 155 villagers Patrick refers to and we can see that we’re giving them in excess of $161,000 PER PERSON on top of what’s already been handed over.

      There’s no way this is anywhere near the end of these massive wealth transfers and it’s more than fair to wonder just how much Patrick M. LeMay, PE might be hoping to skim off of it all or if he’s just a terribly misguided fellow with moist eyes and no understanding of when begging has gone too far.

        • For gosh sake, Greggy, put down the bottle and pull yourself together.

          The fact of the matter is that this trashy “your people owe my people and if you disagree you’re a Native hater” narrative you want to run with is fully played out and you’re going to find an increasing number of decent folks are going to start loathing you for trying to play that hand rather than for your race. You and yours aren’t owed anything.

          Y’know I really should have to tell you but mooching is dishonorable and argumentum ad misericordiam is an invalid form of argument.

        • The logic you’ve attempted to reverse is called collectivism and it works.

          Aunt Sally is not making racist remarks; she’s pointing out that Mr. LeMay is begging approval for a freakishly stupid idea. Every investment should have a return and too much has already been invested. In this example there is no return.

          You may recall a prior article from a guest contributor to Suzanne’s site right around the fourth week of September wherein she stated that the problem with the ASD’s grossly high cost per student resides in infrastructure cost. ASD school buildings are simply too expensive. But somehow a $50mm or more school built in the middle of nowhere seems like a good idea to you?

          It is not. Here’s what would happen… the contractor would call the engineer that drafted the electrical service and ask for a quick calc to verify that the first month’s bill seems right. The buck or buck and a half kWh rate would equate to more than the total income of the village and everyone would pull their chin. Then the residents would start plugging extension cords into the school as has been common at every other school in a native village setting.

          Instead of name calling you should listen closely to what Aunt Sally has to say. She has much to teach and you have much to learn.

  12. The natives elected to live there so they alone need to take care of it. Anyone who builds by the sea is at risk . They wanted it and got lands from the government so they can move anywhere their land is. Otherwise we need to pay to relocate everybody because the climate changes everywhere.

  13. Actually, Bureau of Indian Affairs decided where the former migratory groups would be located as the village of Newtok. They built a school and the federal government required all Native children go to school and adopt a civilized life. The US Marshall Service enforced the law by sometimes taking children from the migratory camps and relocating them to the schools. This forced families to then relocate closer to the school site.

    Obviously this law in essence altered the culture from one very capable of dealing with environmental changes to one that was based on protecting the infrastructure in place. Problem was the environment of the Artic is always severe and changing. The federal government created the problem but a small subsistence based community will have to deal with it or disperse. Obviously families that treasure their roots and ancestors don’t want to abandon their heritage and move to some strange and unfamiliar places.

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