Grant to buy, demolish homes an incremental step toward Newtok relocation

The money will help address several homes most at threatened by river erosion.

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Residents of Newtok, a Yup’ik village perched precariously on eroding permafrost, got a small step closer to their goal of relocation when the federal government awarded a grant to purchase and demolish seven homes.

The grant, announced March 20 by the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, totals $1.7 million and comes from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. That program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, used a port of money awarded in response to federally declared disasters.

The grant comes at the request of the Newtok Village Council, which is working with state and federal agencies, tribal groups and other organizations to relocate the entire village of about 350 to a safer site that residents have called Mertarvik. Newtok is located along a river that is eroding dramatically as the climate warms and permafrost thaws, and has become a high-profile example of climate-change impacts in the far north.

Mike Sutton, director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, characterized the grant award as only an incremental step.

“HMGP is not designed to move entire communities, which is the ultimate goal of Newtok. With this HMGP award we can address the homes most in danger of being lost to river erosion,” he said in a statement released by the division. “As the Ninglick River continues to cause erosion issues in Newtok, DHS&EM will continue to work with Newtok Village Council and our partners to explore viable solutions to the problems these Alaskans face.”

The award is the result of a third version of an aid application filed by the village council. In 2015, the state had set aside money to relocate about 12 homes from Newtok to Mertarvik, but erosion of the barge landing site made that plan impossible. The village then applied for funds to buy and tear down homes, with the intent of rebuilding at Mertarvik, but the state found that application to be incomplete; available Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money went instead to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage, where homeowners were losing their houses to the eroding Matanuska River.

This new iteration of the grant application makes use of leftover aid money that had been sent to Alaska for disasters elsewhere in the state, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.

The third application sought to have money paid directly to homeowners, skipping some complicated requirements for detailed townsite plans, Zidek said.

“This isn’t something that homeowners are being forced to do,” he said. “It’s an option that’s being presented to them, and they can decide to do what’s best for them and their families.”

Residents of Newtok and other rapidly eroding Alaska villages have struggled to obtain disaster aid. The erosion, linked to climate change, is considered a chronic problem, not fitting the requirements of the Stafford Act, the federal law that governs federal disaster aid.

The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program — with split federal-state funding — can bridge some of that gap, Sutton said in the agency statement.

“Naturally occurring erosion, like Newtok is experiencing, is not eligible for aid through the normal state or federal disaster declaration process. Without HMGP it is likely the residents would see their homes taken by the river without any financial help,” he said.

The participating homeowners will be paid fair market value for their houses, and the home sites will be designated as open space in perpetuity, the agency statement said.

Three homes and some community facilities have been built at the new village site, Zidek said.