After 20-year wait, Newtok residents leave home to pioneer Mertarvik

Harry Nevak starts filling his boat in Newtok with his family’s belongings in order to move them over to Mertarvik. (Photo credit Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

When the first families from Newtok relocated to Mertarvik earlier this month, they were asked, “How do you feel?” It’s a question that residents have been confronting over 20 years, as they’ve worked to move away from their eroding village. But how are you supposed to feel when you’ve left your home, your family, and your friends to pioneer a brand new village? Mertarvik residents say that it’s complicated.

In Newtok, Harry Nevak is being watched as he picks up a box. Inside are all the things his family owns. He’s about to set it down on his boat, already filled to the brim, when a cameraman interrupts him.

“Can I come in just for a sec to get a shot?” the cameraman asks. 

“You’ll be in the way,” Nevak replies.

A crowd, made up of two film crews and reporters from three news outlets, surrounds the scene on the boat. 

“The whole state of Alaska is watching us, and the rest of the world is watching us,” said Newtok Village Council President Paul Charles.

Albert Active, left, and others move boxes filled with supplies for the new school in Mertarvik onto four-wheelers in Newtok. (Photo credit Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

It’s moving day in Newtok, the village where erosion has already claimed several homes and the river is banging on more doors. Newtok is sending a third of its residents across the Ninglick River this year, to its replacement village, Mertarvik. Decades of planning have built up to this moment. 

As Newtok has waited, its boardwalk has sunk into the ground. Residents describe it as “spongy” because of the soft mud underneath. (Photo credit Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

“It felt like it was never going to happen,” said Newtok resident Lisa Charles.

Charles’ grandparents told her about the plans to move when she was 16. That was in 1994.

“I remember being really excited, thinking it was gona happen in one year, but every year there would be a delay,” Charles remembered. “Is it 30 years later, no 25 years later, we’re finally gonna move.”

Lisa Charles and her family had only just begun to start packing, a week before they move across the river. (Photo credit Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

Moving an entire village is a huge project, but why did it take a quarter of a century to move just some of the residents? The cost of moving Newtok has been estimated at over $100 million. This has meant courting dozens of agencies for a house here, a stretch of road there. And managing the grants and the paperwork has not always been easy.

“We lost by the millions,” said former Tribal Administrator Stanley Tom.

Tom, a former tribal administrator, said that millions of dollar in grants were mismanaged and lost in the early days of the relocation process. He blamed it on disagreements within the village’s leadership. That led to a power struggle where the Newtok Village Council eventually wrested control of the relocation effort from the Newtok Traditional Council. During that time of instability, funding stalled for years. Paul Charles, the current president, says that’s all behind them.

“We work together as a community, as one village,” Charles said.

But before everyone can move over to Mertarvik, there will be two villages, at least physically. 

“I brought some people yesterday, and it kinda made me wanna move,” said Myron Lincoln. He’s part of the majority who is staying in Newtok this year. Officials in Newtok say that the families closest to the erosion and flooding get to move first. Everyone else will have to wait. 

Several structures in Newtok are on the very edge of the riverbank. Some homes have already been demolished to avoid them falling into the Ninglick River. (Photo credit Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

Lincoln is making the best of the situation. He and his family are moving into his cousin Lisa Charles’ home in Newtok, since Charles is moving over to Mertarvik. He’s not worried about staying in a home that was evacuated due to flooding risk. After all, he says, it’s only temporary.

“Until next year when we get our own spot at Mertarvik,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln is not the only one in Newtok who claims he’ll move next year. But Newtok’s relocation director Romy Cadiente says that they don’t actually have the funding to build more houses, at least not yet.

“We’ll get them over there. Just be patient with us, because these things take a while,” Cadiente said.

And the ones who will move over this year, are they ready to leave?

“There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to leave home because I’ve lived here for all my life,” Michael Fairbanks said.

But Fairbanks says that he knows he has to. He’s moving to solid ground to live a safer life. “There’s no other words to describe it but feeling happy and sad at the same time.”

When it gets dark in Newtok, people walk to the south side of the village to look across the river. Homes in Mertarvik light up like stars. 

As dusk sets on Newtok’s airport, lights from homes in Mertarvik emerge across the river. The light on the right comes from the rock quarry. (Photo by Greg Kim/KYUK)

A 25-minute boat ride gets you from Newtok to Mertarvik, and it’s a brand new village in every sense. The gravel roads are immaculate. The homes are 1,400 square feet. Relocation Coordinator Cadiente shows off a 4-bedroom home, complete with stove, refrigerator, wood stove, and a thermostat control. By next year, there will be running water and flushing toilets.

“But one of the real neat features is this,” Cadiente says as he walks into one of the bedrooms. He beams in front of a built-in closet. Compared to overcrowded one-bedroom homes in Newtok, many with mold issues due to flooding, the contrast in Mertarvik is striking.

Charles is going outside and doesn’t want to be bothered. She says that whenever she feels sad, she’ll walk on the tundra and the living ground heals her. 

Albertina Charles feeds her grandchildren for the first time in their new home in Mertarvik. (Photo by Greg Kim/KYUK)

Albertina Charles’s new home is right on the water. But in Mertarvik, that’s a good thing. Inside, she sits on the bare floor of the living room next her daughter and her three grandchildren. Each of the babies have a pack of ramen they’re munching on: comfort food. 

Charles says that she’s happy in her new home, but her voice trails off.

“If only there was no erosion, no flood, no permafrost melting, we would still be over there,” Charles said. “But we’ll get used to it. We’ll get used to living here.” 

Outside, between the Ninglick River and her new home in Mertarvik, Charles has her own patch of tundra on the hillside. Stretched out in front of her is a view of the river. You can’t make out Newtok, but it’s out there. Charles bends down. She picks up a leaf, puts it to her nose, and inhales.

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