Fifteen years ago, the residents of the tiny village of Newtok—which sits along an eroding riverbank near the Bering Sea in southwest Alaska—were dubbed some of America’s “first climate refugees” by The New York Times and a series of other national media outlets. Newtok, an Alaska Native community with some 300 residents at the time, stood on the remote edge of the United States as a harbinger of the ways in which climate disasters would disrupt our daily lives. Warming temperatures have shortened winter in Newtok, thawed the permafrost that helps hold the place together, and increased erosion rates to catastrophic levels—shredding the land into giant, muddy chunks, threatening to topple houses. The community’s story first struck a chord at a moment when the impacts of the climate crisis were difficult for some Americans to visualize. It was still several years before Superstorm Sandy would displace tens of thousands of people and redefine how we thought about tropical cyclones; before the West’s seasons of drought, megafire, and smoke felt so relentless; and a decade prior to California’s infamous Camp Fire, which destroyed 18,000 structures and razed most of the town of Paradise. Newtok became famous for foreshadowing how much we could lose—our homes.
A decade and a half later, it’s more obvious that climate change is a homewrecker and community-destroyer. According to one analysis, one in 10 American homes were hit by major climate disasters in 2021, causing nearly $57 billion in property damage. But Newtok and other imperiled Alaskan coastal communities like Kivalina and Shishmaref still serve as examples about how much labor and coordination it will take to lift communities out of the path of disaster. This fall, Newtok has also offered a sobering reminder of what can happen if that labor is unfinished by the time floodwaters arrive at the doorstep.
For decades, the people of Newtok held steadfastly to a plan to rebuild their community in a new location. I reported on Newtok for seven years as I researched a book on how American communities face the climate crisis, and when I first visited in 2015, people in the village were eager to get out of the path of danger, sad to leave a place that held so much personal history, and determined to stay in the region, connected with the fishing and seal-hunting traditions and land-based culture that had sustained them for generations. “I probably wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Newtok resident Bernice John told me then. So the community had voted to move together to a historic campsite nine miles away, stable and underlain by bedrock.
But while the people of Newtok were looking far ahead, government agencies were sometimes myopic—or at least unacquainted with such a situation. When the village first tried to get help, no federal or state agency had any experience relocating an entire community away from climate risks. Some in the community welcomed the chance to blaze a trail. “That’s like making history,” said George Carl, then the village council vice president, in 2015.
But Newtok’s predicament was sometimes too slow-moving—and the village’s situation too remote and difficult to grasp—to fit neatly into categories defined by federal and state policies and agencies. Over time, the community was able to cobble together some initial relocation assistance from state and federal government and nonprofit sources to build infrastructure such as rudimentary roads, a barge landing, and a handful of houses that were at first only occupied seasonally (since the new site still lacked basic amenities like electricity or a health clinic). But it was sometimes hard for Newtok to secure more significant help because its situation didn’t qualify officially as a disaster. “You try to explain to agencies that it’s cheaper to be proactive than it is to have it turned into a disaster,” said Sally Russell Cox in 2016. A programs manager with the state of Alaska, Cox supported the Newtok relocation process for years. “If a disaster happens, there’s a whole bunch of funding that becomes available to them, but you really don’t want it to have to happen that way.”
In 2016, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded Newtok a tiny fraction of the funding it needed—originally to relocate a few houses (though they would turn out to be too difficult to move). But the following year, the outgoing Obama administration turned down the village’s request for more substantial disaster assistance, calling Newtok’s situation “not appropriate” for disaster relief money—not an immediate, screaming disaster. (This was despite the fact that Newtok was struggling to avert health crises. Flooding often disrupted the village’s drinking water supply. And like far too many rural Alaskan communities, the village also had no sanitation: Households had to dump buckets of raw sewage into the river, with the waste sometimes washing back into the village.) “We were shocked,” Romy Cadiente, then the village’s relocation coordinator, said to a radio reporter after learning of the decision. The rejection illustrated a major conundrum with how American society has dealt with disaster. Too often we prioritize taking action after a crisis has become acute—not when it is visible on the horizon and the worst might still be averted. This approach is at very least inefficient, and especially in an era of climate crisis, it is potentially deadly.
Partly because of the example set by places like Newtok, the policies and strategies that guide climate change responses have begun to shift. In 2018, without much fanfare, Congress passed a bill called the “Disaster Recovery Reform Act,” which devoted a small portion of the FEMA budget to “pre-disaster mitigation”—in other words, strategies to help avert or at least lessen the impacts of climate disasters ahead of time. That same year, Newtok received significant funding from multiple sources—including the FEMA buyout program, the state of Alaska, and some special funding allocated by Congress—to help the village relocate. A year later, the village council organized a season of major construction at the community’s new location—by the fall, 21 houses were ready for their new occupants. Bernice John and George Carl were among the first to move, and John said she’d no longer miss her old house. “It’s too small and moldy,” she said bluntly.
Since then, about half of the community has been able to relocate to sturdy, energy-efficient houses in the new village site on a bluff above the river, but the other half is still stranded on rapidly collapsing land at the old site. This fall, when Typhoon Merbok whirled all the way from the tropics to the Bering Sea, the storm left the new village largely unmarred. But it ripped apart so much of the old village’s shoreline that, according to an engineer working for Newtok, only 30 feet of flimsy, often-sodden ground now stands between the river’s edge and the water treatment plant that serves the village school, which also doubles as the community’s emergency shelter. Merbok, which was almost certainly amplified by climate change, served up the region’s worst flooding in decades—tearing roofs off houses, sinking boats, carting off a pair of empty fuel storage tanks, and dragging away people’s belongings. Merbok also caused widespread wreckage around the region, and Newtok—along with a 1000-mile section of Alaska’s west coast—has finally entered the unhappy category of official disaster zone. President Biden approved the federal disaster declaration in late September. Newtok is now in a dire position. The typhoon damaged a dozen Newtok homes, and the next big storm could easily undermine the school and the airstrip and force people there to evacuate by helicopter. It’s unclear where they would go. “I don’t want to live this way,” said Lucinda Carl Ivan, George Carl’s niece, this September. She still resides in the village with her daughter. “I have no choice.”
The Biden administration has been taking steps to change how the federal government deals with disasters, especially in vulnerable communities, and it’s committed to climate resilience—the kind of advanced planning that is supposed to help people weather storms and adapt to change. For instance, FEMA’s newest strategic plan promises to “enhance the nation’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to future climate conditions.” In November, the Department of the Interior—under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Indigenous cabinet member—announced $45 million of support to help a group of tribes plan for and respond to climate impacts, financed in part by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Two weeks ago, Interior also announced that it was awarding $115 million to 11 Indigenous communities that face a certain or potential need to relocate, including $25 million to Newtok—a breakthrough that might finally allow the other half of the village to build homes on safe ground. “We’re hoping we can get more materials for houses, so we can get everyone moved,” said Joseph John Jr., current village council president. (Whether that’s possible depends partly on what constraints the agency may have put on the funds, which are earmarked for “core community infrastructure,” according to Cox.) A Bureau of Indian Affairs official also noted that the funding announcement would let the agency gain experience with climate relocation. Haaland has said that such investments are part of America’s treaty responsibilities to tribes. They are also arguably a piece of the climate debt owed to Indigenous nations whose land this country has colonized and prospered from and who have contributed little to the global emissions that are fueling the climate crisis.
The announcements also mark a slow but major shift in disaster response and climate policy, but it’s “not fast enough for Newtok,” said Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer, director of climate initiatives at the nonprofit Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
There will be more communities that have to move in the near future. Tribal nations face some of worst risks—and have also done some of most advanced planning. In Alaska alone, more than 70 Alaska Native villages are threatened by serious erosion, flooding, or permafrost collapse, according to the US Government Accountability Office. Schaeffer’s organization plans to prepare a report on the needs of Alaska’s environmentally threatened villages—to help government agencies prioritize funding. In Louisiana, a tribal community on Isle de Jean Charles has also begun relocating 40 miles northwest, fleeing coastal land that’s also disappearing because of erosion and sea level rise. In Washington State, the Quinault Indian Nation, another recipient of the recent Department of Interior funding, has a plan to move about a half-mile away—out of the path of coastal floods. The nearby Quileute and Hoh tribal communities are also beginning to retreat to higher ground.
The rest of the country has much to learn from these relocations. Climate change will only make disasters more frequent and catastrophic. A head-in-the-sand approach will only amplify the misery of people who have to live through them. But big decisions about who lives where, what happens to people whose homes are damaged and whose lives are uprooted, and what land is no longer safe enough to occupy are rarely well-coordinated. Forbes reports that nearly a third of Americans considered climate change as a possible reason to move in 2022, and California is losing population partly because of wildfires. In some states, like Louisiana and Florida, displacement caused by hurricanes and flooding is already deepening a housing crisis. Meanwhile, many Americans are actually relocating into the path of floods and hurricanes, and real estate agents aren’t required to reveal a property’s flood history to a potential buyer.
In the face of all of this, “we really need a national resilience strategy,” says Shana Udvardy, policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS has advocated for a bill that was introduced in Congress to help reorganize how the federal government spends money on disasters—ideally, so it can make disasters and climate impacts less damaging by planning for them more comprehensively, among other things by establishing a chief resilience officer in the White House tasked with bringing agencies together. UCS still hopes the bill could squeak through the final days of this congressional session. It will be harder to pass in a divided Congress in 2023. But the need for some kind of organized approach to climate disasters will only become more urgent.
The lesson of Newtok is that relocation, resilience, and disaster preparation are hard, expensive, and require foresight. Newtok is, in fact, a success story—just a messy one. The community has done more to chart a path to climate relocation than almost any other in the United States. “We worked hard at it; now we’re here. Some of us are here now,” Bernice John told me recently, calling from her house in the new village site. But even then, it can be hard to escape loss and tragedy. John also texted me pictures of the damage near her friends’ and family members’ homes at the old village. “Some homes were like little islands” during Merbok, she said. She hasn’t traveled to Newtok recently because she fears the contamination that may have resulted from the storm. “They need lots of money to clean that place,” she remarked. But mostly, the residents of the old Newtok need to be able to leave—to move themselves out of the path of disaster, as they’ve been trying to do all these years.
Editor’s Note: This article initially stated that climate disasters caused $57 million in property damage in 2021. In fact, climate disasters caused $57 billion in property damage. The article has been corrected.