ANCHORAGE — A quickly eroding Native village in western Alaska has hit a snag in its plans to relocate after a U.S. Army Reserve landing craft carrying tons of construction equipment and supplies for the effort ran aground hundreds of miles away.
But residents of tiny Newtok are pushing ahead with their long-sought dream of moving to higher ground in a place called Mertarvik that's nine miles across a vast, raging river.
Tribal administrator Stanley Tom said he's disappointed the June 8 grounding near Alaska's Kodiak Island halted the help of "good workers" provided by the military the last three summers.
Tom said that won't keep locals from proceeding, not when the restless Ninglick River is swallowing as much as 70 feet of bank a year just south of the village.
"We'd like to just keep on going," Tom said. "We can't wait for any one agency."
The Army's 174-foot Monterrey was beached on Puffin Island after it hit a charted rock, spilling thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. The mishap cancelled the military's plans this summer to construct buildings at Mertarvik to be used for storage or emergency shelters, but officials say the effort will resume next summer.
The Marines-led effort is in its fourth year of a five-year mission to help build infrastructure at Mertarvik as part of the military's "Innovative Readiness Training" program, which provides pre-deployment training for all branches through assisting civilian partners in various forms.
The idea is that even during peacetime, troops are ready for the intricate juggling and logistical challenges involved in times of war, said Master Sgt. Mike Schenck, IRT chief for Reserve Marine logistics. He has worked summers on the Mertarvik project since 2009.
"You get no better training than you do in western Alaska — the austere conditions," he said. "This is kind of like being in the on-deck circle, practicing with a heavy bat. Then when you go to combat, it seems like a light bat."
The help for Mertarvik was requested by the tribal council of Newtok, a Yupik Eskimo community of 350.
The Army's role this year was to transport the equipment and supplies, but that was cut short by the grounding. In previous years at Mertarvik, as many as 100 Marines at a time have provided onsite muscle for such jobs as laying the foundation of an emergency evacuation center that's under construction and building a 1,500-foot road between the center and a barge landing.
Even though this summer is a bust, Schenck said all the work Marines planned to do there will be accomplished next summer — the final year of the partnership with Newtok — and so will other jobs. The buildings planned for this year will be made and access to a rock quarry will be improved. Schenck plans to make a quick visit to Mertarvik to ensure that planning for next year is based on current conditions.
"I look forward to successfully completing this project," Schenck said. "I'm personally committed to it and I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that this mishap this year has no long term effect upon the relocation of this village."
Driven by the urgency of relentless erosion, Newtok residents plan to begin the vertical construction this summer of the planned evacuation center, which will later house tribal offices, a clinic and a community hall.
Local workers who spent months learning construction skills also plan to put the finishing touches on three homes built last year, for a total of six completed houses. Tom, the tribal administrator, said 22 of the 63 homes in Newtok have been deemed moveable. The rest of the homes at Mertarvik will have to be built, as funding allows. The state also is in the early stages of planning a harbor for boats used in subsistence fishing.
Since the work began at Mertarvik in 2009, Newtok has made gradual but steady progress in its seemingly impossible goal of relocating from one remote spot to another, particularly with only short-term federal and state funding — and no long-term funding strategy in place.
There are no roads to ease the process, either. Materials, equipment and crews have to be barged to the new site or carried by boat, and outside work crews are sometimes delivered by helicopter.
Other imperiled Alaska villages are planning relocations but only Newtok, 480 miles west of Anchorage, has begun the actual physical labor.
Tom said the first occupants at Mertarvik could move there as early as August, returning to Newtok during the fall freeze-up and spring breakup — at least until services and facilities become available. The more people begin pioneering the relocation the more they can show government agencies they're serious and ultimately prompt the need for services such as a school, airport and post office.
In the meantime, the Ninglick River continues to corrode the banks, moving ever closer to homes at Newtok. Sinking permafrost continues to subject the area to flooding from intensifying storms blamed on climate change. The smaller Newtok River is now shallow and stagnant. The sinking land has knocked homes out of alignment and created obstacle courses of the boardwalks running over the wetland setting.
Mertarvik, on Nelson Island to the south, is set on volcanically formed bedrock higher up, according to Sally Russell Cox, a state planner and facilitator of a group of federal and state agencies, as well as tribal organizations, involved in the relocation. Newtok completed a federal land trade in 2004 for the new site, whose name means "getting water from the stream" in Yupik.
Enough work has been done there that it can be seen from Newtok on a clear day. No wonder people are excited about someday moving to their new beginnings.
"It's not hard to envision it at all, a full community being there," Cox said.