With virus funds, Newtok will build more homes in Mertarvik

Many of the men and women working construction in Mertarvik this summer are from Newtok or nearby villages. Keeping the crew local is one way the Newtok Village Council is saving money on home construction. A roof truss is placed on a home in Mertarvik, Alaska on July 14, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Around 130 people made the move to the new community of Mertarvik last October. That still leaves most of the village’s residents in Newtok, wondering when a new house will be built for them. 

Construction season in Mertarvik began late this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Relocation Coordinator Romy Cadiente said that his team was ready to start work earlier this summer, but businesses that they were relying on for lumber had shut down.

“Our suppliers in Anchorage, in Seattle — there was nobody at the factories filling orders,” Cadiente said.

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Cadiente said that the COVID-19 delay cost months — precious time during Alaska’s short building season, but then came a silver lining in the form of CARES Act funding. With that, the village council saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. 

The bulk of Newtok’s CARES Act funding will be spent on building new homes in Mertarvik, which Cadiente says will initially be designated as what they call “isolation homes,” so that any individual that contracts COVID-19 could quarantine in those buildings to prevent the virus from spreading. While Council President George Carl agrees that it’s important to contain the virus, he says that what matters most to him is bringing everyone over to Mertarvik.

“We just can’t leave anybody out,” Carl said. “Even we’re having a hard time finding funding for the house, something comes up from somewhere, we’re gonna put it to the house.”

Cadiente said that the CARES Act funding will pay for five additional homes.

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“So for this year alone, we have a total of about nine homes going in,” Cadiente said.

Before the CARES money arrived, Newtok planned to build only four homes this summer. This was a stark decline in production from last year, when 13 homes, several miles of gravel road, a landfill, and other projects were built. Cadiente called this year a “transition year.”

What turbocharged the Mertarvik relocation effort last summer was an injection of $25 million from the Denali Commission. After spending the money and completing the projects, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which was managing the work, left. 

“They did a heck of a job,” Cadiente said. “ANTHC was about completed with the project, so we had to get this new team together. We had to look for a lot more grants.”

Also, Newtok doesn’t have the help of the U.S. Armed Forces this summer, which provided approximately $1.6 million in labor last year. Cadiente said that the council didn’t invite the military’s Innovative Readiness Training Program this year because of uncertainty with funding and with the pandemic. 

“We told them, ‘As much as much as we appreciate you and the work that you’ve done for us, responsibly, we cannot do it this year,’” Cadiente said.

RELATED: Mertarvik’s lack of a commercial airport may have already cost lives

Council President Carl says that the village will invite the military back next year, which is when Cadiente says that the Mertarvik project will bounce back. Next summer, he expects to complete 11 to 20 new homes. Plus, they’re hoping they can build the homes cheaper.

Engineer Patrick M. LeMay, PE and Newtok Relocation Coordinator Romy Cadiente stand on the foundation of a future home in Mertarvik, Alaska on July 12, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Patrick LeMay, of LeMay Engineering and Construction, the new project manager in Mertarvik, has designed new homes that he claims he can build for a third of the cost of the ones that were built last year. He says that he can construct two-bedroom houses for $150,000, and four-bedroom houses for just $10,000 more. 

LeMay says that the first homes in Mertarvik were built to meet the highest levels of energy efficiency, but he said that their upfront cost is much greater than the total savings in fuel costs over the home’s lifetime.

“Is that really a good trade-off?” Lemay said. “How many more homes could have been built had they not gone to a six-star versus I’m shooting for a five star plus, which is pretty efficient.”

But LeMay isn’t certain that his designs will yield a five star plus energy efficiency rating, or if he’ll come within budget. That’s a bet he’s making that will play out this fall when the first four homes he’s designing will be completed.

“Yes, it’s a risk,” LeMay said. “Since it’s my design, it’s my word that I have to prove.”

Meanwhile, the 30 children living in Mertarvik are still making do without a school, but Cadiente says that’s up to the state’s funding priorities. 

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Council President Carl says that the village is waiting to put running water into houses until more are built. A water main will be set up by next year, but Cadiente says that they still need money to connect the main to people’s homes. 

This fall, a few more families will move over to Mertarvik, but that will still leave at least half the village residents in Newtok. Village council members say that they’re working as fast as they can to reunite everyone.

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