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FEMA is buying homes in this Alaskan town because climate change

A village needs to move nine miles to avoid being swallowed by rising waters

The village of Newtok, Alaska, is trying to escape catastrophic coastal erosion. Its residents have even been called America’s first climate refugees. But because traditional FEMA disaster funding doesn’t cover climate-related threats, they’ve struggled for years to find funding to relocate to a new location 9 miles away, called Mertarvik.

But this week things started to look a little better for the community, when FEMA and Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management approved a $1.7 million grant package. The grant will buy out seven households, allowing a total of more than 50 of the community’s 400 residents to move.


VICE News Tonight visited Newtok in October 2017. In just four days, a winter storm tore away 10 feet of the community’s shoreline, bringing the water just a few feet from the nearest home. In Alaska’s coastal villages, erosion of that scale isn’t supposed to happen, but the arctic is warming faster than any other part of the planet.

Read: Climate change is killing this Alaskan village

Much warmer winters mean soils don’t freeze, and easily crumble into the sea. Romy Cadiente, Newtok’s relocation coordinator, said the problem keeps getting worse and this winter the water didn’t freeze until the end of January, causing serious damage to the shoreline.

A full relocation isn’t cheap. Newtok’s move will cost an estimated $130 million, and so far it’s fallen far short of raising enough money. According to Cadiente, these new grants came at the right time: “This actually saved people."

Cover image: Della Carl was born and raised in Newtok. She is now helping build a new village for residents to relocate to. (Photo: Jika Gonzalez/VICE News)