As the permafrost melts, the houses in Nunapitchuk are breaking down

a house
Erosion has left some houses in Nunapitchuk on their own little hills. The houses provide shade and support for the soil left underneath. (Sunni Bean/KYUK)

A large crack runs down the center of James Berlin Sr.’s faded brick-red home. He’s been the mayor of Nunapitchuk for 16 years, and a pillar of the community. His house needs a new porch and a new foundation.

“The best choice would be to build a new house,” Berlin Sr. said. “But right now it needs to be repaired.”

Some houses in Nunapitchuk sit on their own little hills as the soil erodes around them. Whole neighborhoods have sunk as seeping sewage mixes with the soil of the melting tundra. One long bridge on the southwest of town is blocked off now with a set of wooden planks. All of the houses in the neighborhood it once connected are abandoned.

Not far from the Johnson River, Natalia “Edna” Chase’s two-room plywood home is one of the houses in especially urgent need. For the last decade, the ground beneath her house has been giving way.

a torn-down house
A house’s remnants after it was torn down because it was on unstable ground. (Sunni Bean/KYUK)

Gaps form between the plywood floor, letting in frigid wind and blowing snow. Each time someone opens the door in the winter, Chase goes behind them and puts paper towels into the gaps with a butter knife. The floor is always moving, sometimes sloping upwards, tripping up her brother, who had a stroke and shuffles, and her partner, who struggles to balance since losing an arm.

“I’ve been trying to move around furniture because this side is sinking faster than before,” Chase said, pointing to the sagging floor under the kitchen. “We usually have rainwater coming in before winter and I have no place to put it, so we’re using buckets to bring the water in. For drinking and all that.”

Water pours in when the snow melts too. When there are sunny days in the spring, Chase stays up all night vacuuming the water gushing in from the corner of her floorboards and putting the water in a row of large buckets. Chase estimates that about 500 gallons of water flood into their home in the spring.

“I usually try to keep furniture up by using two by fours so the air can circulate under,” said Chase. “We have to keep it about 80 degrees every day to keep the floor dry. Sometimes I have five fans going on when it’s really wet outside to keep the floor from getting too moldy.”

Every week, despite her chronic back pain, she moves every item and appliance and gets on her knees to clean underneath them. When she hasn’t kept up with constant cleaning, she’s seen mold patches that look like flowering orchids grow to the size of a football.

“This mold, it sticks on clothes, it sticks on the bed, the mattress, everything. That moldy smell,” Chase said. “I have to rewash every clothes. I’ll wash clothes. If I leave them out, they start stinking and I have to wash them again.”

Her partner has developed a chronic respiratory illness and recently her 14-year-old had to get an inhaler.

“It gets very depressing. Most days I can’t shake it off until I, I don’t know, maybe get mad and it will shake off. But we’re trying to deal with it,” said Chase.

Except for school for her son, they rarely leave the house. All of her time is devoted to taking care of the house and family. Chase worries about how her own health issues might mean she won’t be able to keep up with all the work.

“I wouldn’t want them to go through what I have been going through all this time with this house. It’s very debilitating, especially when you’re disabled. To see your partners cough away. And that black mold. I have to get started even though I’m hurting so much.”

The lots next to Chase’s home are empty, filled with abandoned chests of drawers and washers, heavy items that made the homes sink faster. Her neighbors knocked down their houses and moved in with nearby relatives because of the flooding and increasingly unstable ground.

Appliances that were removed from homes because they were causing the houses to sink faster. (Sunni Bean/KYUK)

Chase wants to move too, but there’s nowhere to go. There’s no land in Nunapitchuk that’s good enough to build on anymore. That means a lot of houses are overcrowded. James Berlin Jr. recently moved in with his dad.

“Practically everybody here, practically every family you know have multiple families living in houses now,” Berlin Jr. said. “Living conditions, with our water and sewer system, it’s causing health issues that we normally wouldn’t be seeing.”

Berlin Jr. said that he thinks their house is sinking because the nearby sewage lagoon is seeping out. Many residents point to the toxic chemicals in the multiple sewage lagoons dotting the center of town, soaking into the soil and speeding up the already rapidly-melting permafrost.

a sign
A sign in Morris Alexie’s office. (Sunni Bean/KYUK)

When we walked around, Berlin Jr. pointed at the large number of snowmachines gathered by properties for different members of households. Overcrowding was one reason Nunapitchuk was one of the first places in Alaska to see the coronavirus run rampant.

“I’m not saying everybody’s sick, but you know, it’s more common to see people going to the clinic for respiratory issues like colds, head colds, flus, sore throat,” said Berlin Jr.. “You know, all kinds of common flus and stuff that you see, but it’s more so here in Nunap(itchuk) because we have multiple family units living in small spaces.”

It’s not the first time the village has seen widespread disease, but in the past, one of their protections was the spread-out nature of their community and their nomadic lifestyle. Nunapitchuk resident Morris Alexie explained.

“When they brought in (disease), they call it the Black Death. If we were all gathered in a village like we’re gathered now, I bet it would wipe out almost all of the community,” Alexie said. “But then since they were in, in tribal, in small tribes separately, that Black Death they called would leave, like, only one remaining family of that tribe.”

Permafrost melt doesn’t just make home life more difficult. All the infrastructure in town is having problems because of the eroding soil. In the next part of the four-part series, KYUK takes a look at Nunapitchuk’s public buildings.

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