- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

NEWTOK, Alaska (AP) — The last time chronic flooding forced this tiny Alaska village to relocate, sled dogs pulled the old church to its new home three miles away, far from the raging Ninglick River.

That was in 1950 and life was simpler in Newtok, mostly a collection of traditional 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. “If the erosion keeps on coming, we will be in a grave situation.”

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.”

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

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