Newtok Moves Forward With Relocation Plans

Stanley Tom (left), tribal adminstrator for Newtok and the George Tom (right), a lifelong resident of Newtok, talk in the APRN studios in Anchorage. Photo by Robin Bronen with the Alaska Immigration Justice Project.

Two representatives from the village of Newtok and an immigration specialist are traveling to the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea this week to meet with islanders there and share information about how to take charge of plans for relocating communities vulnerable to coastal erosion. Stanley Tom is the tribal administrator for the traditional council in Newtok, a Yupik community of around 400 about 90 miles west of Bethel. In an interview before leaving Alaska,Tom said Newtok is moving forward with their own plans for relocating and training community members for jobs building an emergency evacuation center in September.

“So we are excited to build our own community and I did send in about 17 students to certify them at Kotzebue so I have carpenters, laborers, electricians. They all certified and we’re just excited to build our new community,” Tom said.

Tom says they’ve built three houses in the new village site and are working on three more.  He says he’s hoping to learn from the Carteret Islanders and work with them to help other vulnerable communities. The Carteret islanders are relocating because of rising sea levels. They’ve been called the world’s first environmental refugees. Tom says for Newtok, erosion and flooding risks are increasing at a rapid pace and the village has sunk below sea level.

“The rain is coming in, it’s pushing the land lower and lower, we’re like minus 30 feet from sea level right now so we are a really flood prone area. The erosion is coming in, we’re losing already 30 to 50 feet already and it’s coming in. I mean our water source is about 154 feet right now as we speak and once that water source is impacted, where will we get our water?,” Tom said.

Stanley’s cousin George Tom is also part of the delegation to the South Pacific. George is 64 and has lived in the Newtok area all his life, but he says the original village was farther inland and was only moved closer to the coast because of the federal government.

“Because they were planning to build a BIA school at that time when I was growing up in the old village site but the barges couldn’t come in, couldn’t go inland,” he said.

So the village was moved to where supplies could be more easily delivered.

Robin Bronen helped spearhead the effort in bringing the Alaska and New Guinea communities together. Bronen is the Executive Director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project. She says she’s been observing the relocation process in Newtok since 2007 and started researching other efforts internationally. She found the Carteret islanders, who are moving to a bigger island. She says relocations in the past were always forced moves perpetrated by governments, but the two communities meeting in the South Pacific right now are changing that.

“And what the Newtok traditional council and Tulele Peise are doing is creating a different model, that I believe needs to be implemented. We need to figure out how this form of relocation can be the precedent setting model where you have communities actually making all the decisions, regarding whether they relocate, where they relocate and how they relocate,” Bronen said.

Bronen says funding is always an issue. She says following a disaster, money for rebuilding is often available, but accessing those funds usually requires rebuilding in the same place instead of in a stable area that won’t be ravaged by coastal storms and erosion.

George Tom says when his village can move to the new location, they will no longer have to worry about salt water compromising their fresh water supply.

“The new village site is promising ‘cause it’s higher ground. It’s more fresh water, mountain water. Water so close you can just go outside, dip your cup and drink,” Tom said.

Bronen says the next phase of the project is for the people of the Carteret Islands to come to Alaska next spring or fall and then a combined delegation will travel to Washington DC to work with other affected communities through the center for international environmental law and the UN environment program.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin.

She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 18 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director.

In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications with veteran Alaskan broadcasters Nellie Moore, D’Anne Hamilton, Len Anderson, Sharon McConnell and Veronica Iya. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN.

Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley.

She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests.

ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori