Nick Tom points to the waterlogged tundra where Newtok is located.
“The flooding was all over this whole area,” he said.
Tom, who runs the village’s company store, said floodwaters from Typhoon Merbok displaced the village’s boardwalks and partially submerged the community’s two giant fuel tanks. “Everything is so outdated and there is so much fuel. It’s just dangerous,” he said.
Smaller barrels of fuel were thrown and at least one leaked. The National Guard was in Newtok a few days after the storm. While in the village they removed nearly 900 pounds of debris, but there is still trash strewn everywhere.
Newtok is among more than 40 communities in western Alaska affected by the dramatic remnants of Typhoon Merbok. The Alaska Native village has garnered national media attention for years as severe erosion and melting permafrost are causing a wide range of serious public health concerns. The mid-September storm intensified the race to move the approximately 200 people still in the village to higher ground.
Melting permafrost and severe erosion have plagued the community for decades. The most recent storm brought waves so strong that the water washed away about half of the approximately 80 feet of remaining land that stands between the back of the school and the edge of the Ningliq River.
Twenty years ago, the people of Newtok decided to move to a new location on higher ground. It’s on Nelson Island, nine miles south across the river. To date, only about 70 people have moved to Mertarvik. The other two-thirds of the population remain in Newtok. The relocation effort is slow and complicated by local politics, funding shortfalls and geography. But Nick Tom said the storm highlights the seriousness of this situation.
“It’s a matter of security,” he said. “This is our future. [Nelson] the island is the only safe place for our next generation to survive.
Not far from damaged fuel tanks, Janette Stuart hangs bright red and purple sheets on a clothesline outside her house. She has a two-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. His house is about the size of a shipping container, with weathered gray plywood walls. The house sits above ground on stilts, but floodwaters from the storm have still risen high enough to seep inside. She worries about her children.
“It’s so musty and I want them to live in a bigger house where they can run around,” she said.
The new townsite of Mertarvik is visible from the bank of the Ningliq River in Newtok. To get there, Newtok residents must take a half-hour boat ride on the river, where the new community is slowly growing. It sits high on a hill covered in tundra and without trees. There is a huge gravel landing stage and two rows of colorful houses line the brand new road. Bernice John’s house is covered in red metallic siding.
“I love my house,” she says. “It’s much better than the old one I had at home.”
As his grandson Thom unleashed in a spacious living room, John spoke about the storm last month.
“For sure it was very windy, it was the strongest winds we had,” she recalls. “It shook my house here and there a bit and crushed my plants.”
In the summer, she grows marigolds from seeds outdoors. She said they were doing well in the storm.
No one grows flowers outside in Newtok. And the difference in how the two communities weathered the storm is stark. Mertarvik stayed dry. There was no structural damage, no boats or snowmobiles were destroyed, and there is no storm debris littering the ground.
New housing is being built in Mertarvik, but there is still not enough for the nearly 200 people who still live in Newtok. According to Mertarvik’s general contractor, 18 houses are currently under construction there. Nick Tom said it could be at least five years before most people move out completely. Newtok is running out of time, he said.
“If we continue to have this weather, we have more erosion,” Tom said.
Fall storm season is just beginning in western Alaska, and Tom said that’s why getting everyone in Newtok to higher ground is so urgent.