How COVID-19 is slowing down the relocation of a Southwest Alaska village

A crane and backhoe put up a house in a green field
A roof truss is placed on a home in Mertarvik, Alaska on July 14, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

With Newtok continuing to erode at alarming rates, the urgency to move the village grows by the day.

But construction in Mertarvik, the new village that will replace the eroding one, has been slow the past two summers. COVID-19 is a big reason why.

Nine homes in Mertarvik remain unfinished and unoccupied since they were started last summer. Nobody has moved from Newtok to Mertarvik since 2019, when about a third of the community’s approximately 350 residents migrated over.

Newtok Acting Tribal Administrator Phillip Carl explained that part of the reason for last year’s slow progress was the pandemic.

“We couldn’t get any cabinets because of this COVID thing,” Carl said.

Many manufacturers for cabinets, stoves, and other household items had either shut down or drastically cut production due to the pandemic. Patrick LeMay, who is leading the building effort in Mertarvik, said that those material shortages have continued into this year.

“We got 48 lights that are trapped somewhere in Tennessee floods, to finish the lighting. There’s a shortage of fire extinguishers in the nation,” LeMay said. “The supply chain has been a disaster.”

But the materials shortage is just one way that COVID-19 has slowed construction in Mertarvik. LeMay said that the other reason is the virus itself.

“Three of my guys went home for the weekend, and they all got together on a Friday night just to relax. And they all called me on Monday and said ‘we all have COVID,’” LeMay said.

Many of the workers building homes in Mertarvik are Newtok residents. LeMay said that three local workers from Newtok were infected with the virus in August. Then, nearly all the remaining laborers chose to stop working due to concern over a COVID-19 outbreak in the community.

“They were just seeing so much COVID going around they all just decided to go home, stop work until they can get tested,” LeMay said.

The outbreak was the biggest Newtok had experienced since the pandemic began. Thirty-two Newtok residents tested positive for COVID-19 in August; Newtok had only seen a few cases before that. The community’s vaccination rates are lower than the regional average. About 42% of Newtok’s entire population is vaccinated, compared to about 50% for the entire Y-K Delta.

Carl, the acting tribal administrator, said that he doesn’t know why people in Newtok aren’t getting vaccinated. He said that he encourages people on VHF to get the shot, but he himself hasn’t received one.

“Cause I might get sick or something,” Carl said.

Side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine can include tiredness, headache, chills, and fever. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that these should go away within a few days and that serious side effects are extremely unlikely. People are more likely to get seriously sick if they’re unvaccinated and exposed to COVID-19. A recent CDC study showed that unvaccinated people are over 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than vaccinated people.

The decline in construction in Mertarvik since 2019 isn’t just because of COVID-19, though. The project’s funding has also declined. In 2019, Newtok was flush with cash, infused by $15 million in federal funding. And while Newtok has continued to receive smaller grants since then, large grants of more than $1 million are rare. The entire cost of relocation has been estimated at over $100 million.

While construction of the new village has slowed, the need to move there hasn’t. Carl said that Newtok lost over 100 feet of its coast since April.

“When spring came, we started eroding after it warmed up,” Carl said. “After the storm, we lost more.”

Carl said that the community demolished several teacher housing units that were near the water’s edge. On the other side of the river in Mertarvik, the community is finishing up a new duplex for teachers. It’s also finishing the nine homes that were started last year, and AVCP Regional Housing Authority is adding two more.

While not as fast as it would like, Newtok is making progress towards a new future in its new home.

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