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Residents in an Alaska village try to outrun the effects of climate change

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The storm that struck western Alaska last month severely damaged the tiny Native village of Newtok. Emily Schwing reports on the race for residents to outrun the effects of climate change.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: It's fall in western Alaska, and along the edge of a small pond where the grass is turning golden, local kids here in Newtok wade in the cold water.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN EXCLAIMING)

SCHWING: This village is sinking. Decades of melting permafrost and severe erosion have inundated the ground with water. Last month's typhoon swallowed 40 feet of land between the village itself and the Ningliq River.

NICK TOM: So the flood was all over...

SCHWING: Oh, my God.

TOM: ...This whole area.

SCHWING: Nick Tom, the manager at Newtok's local store, leads me across a stretch of waterlogged tundra and down a crooked boardwalk to the community's two giant fuel tanks.

TOM: Everything is so outdated, and there's so much fuel. It's just unsafe.

SCHWING: The storm partially submerged the tanks. The smell of fuel fills the air. There's debris scattered everywhere. Twenty years ago, Newtok residents decided to move to higher ground. They picked Nelson Island, nine miles south on the other side of the river. But the move is slow going. It's complicated by local politics, funding gaps and geography. Nick Tom says the need is urgent.

TOM: It's essential because it's about safety. It's about our future. The island is the only safe place for our next generation to survive.

JANETTE STUART: My son is 2 years old, and my daughter's 1.

SCHWING: Not too far from the damaged fuel tanks, Janette Stuart hangs bright red and purple bedsheets on a clothesline. Her thin plywood house is about the size of a shipping container. Water from the storm flooded inside.

STUART: I worry about my babies getting cold, staying warm, especially living in this house. It's so moldy. And I want them to live in a bigger house where they could run around.

SCHWING: She dreams of a better, safer house in the new village site, called Mertarvik. To get there, Newtok residents like Louie Andy have to take a half-hour boat ride across the river.

LOUIE ANDY: I hope we survive.

SCHWING: Oh, my gosh, Louie. Don't say that.

ANDY: (Laughter).

SCHWING: He jokes, but survival is the focus in Newtok. Extreme weather brought on by climate change makes low-lying areas like this increasingly uninhabitable. Only about a third of Newtok's residents have relocated to Mertarvik, on a tundra-covered, treeless hillside.

BERNICE JOHN: I love my house.

SCHWING: Bernice John's four-bedroom home is covered in red metal siding.

JOHN: It's way better than the old one I had back home.

SCHWING: Her grandson, Thom, runs wild around a spacious living room, as she talks about last month's storm.

JOHN: You know, it was sure very windy. It was the strongest winds we had. It shook my house here and there a little bit. Crashed my plants (laughter).

SCHWING: But the house survived. The difference is stark. Unlike Newtok, Mertarvik stayed dry - no structural damage, no debris. There's not enough new housing in Mertarvik yet. So Nick Tom says roughly 200 people are stuck in Newtok.

TOM: More and more people move across here within the next five-year period, probably.

SCHWING: Do you think you have five years?

TOM: Not really.

SCHWING: Which is why Tom says it's so urgent to get all of Newtok's residents to higher ground.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Newtok, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Schwing comes to the Inland Northwest by way of Alaska, where she covered social and environmental issues with an Arctic spin as well as natural resource development, wildlife management and Alaska Native issues for nearly a decade. Her work has been heard on National Public Radio’s programs like “Morning Edition” and “All things Considered.” She has also filed for Public Radio International’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and various programs produced by the BBC and the CBC. She has also filed stories for Scientific American, Al Jazeera America and Arctic Deeply.