Newtok to ask Obama for federal disaster declaration

first_imgThe village of Newtok in western Alaska, in August 2016. (Photo by Eric Keto/Alaska’s Energy Desk)The village of Newtok plans to request a federal disaster declaration from President Barack Obama before he leaves office. The village is facing rapid erosion due to climate change, and officials say a disaster declaration may be the best chance to unlock federal funds for relocation before the existing village becomes uninhabitable…Listen NowThere’s no question Newtok faces disaster. Erosion and melting permafrost have destroyed the landfill, the sewage lagoon and the barge landing. An engineer’s report this month estimates the village of about 350 people will lose four to six homes by next fall, and the school sometime in 2018.Joel Neimeyer is co-chair of the Denali Commission, the federal agency charged with coordinating village relocation in Alaska. He said many places are facing threats from erosion – but Newtok is in a class by itself.The village of Newtok has lost ground at a rate of 67 feet per year since 1954, according to a recent engineer’s report. Here, the shoreline is pictured in August 2016. (Photo by Hanna Craig)“I’ve worked all across rural Alaska for 31 years, been to over 100 communities,” Neimeyer said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”The problem is, Newtok faces a slow motion disaster. And that’s not what federal disaster relief is set up for. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is designed to respond to specific events: a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake.And the federal government has historically insisted Newtok seek funding through more traditional avenues. But Mike Walleri, the attorney for the Newtok Village Council, said at this point, that’s not going to work.“We just simply don’t have time,” Walleri said.That’s the message representatives from Newtok took with them on a trip to Washington D.C. this fall. Walleri said it was an eye-opener for people in the capital. Despite President Obama’s trip to Alaska last year highlighting exactly this issue, he said, official Washington didn’t realize the true state of things.“Most people had not been aware that Newtok could not take advantage of what they call the catalog of federal assistance, simply because the village will be destroyed before the normal federal assistance can be applied for and implemented into the field,” Walleri said.Walleri said despite the traditional limits on FEMA, the president has a lot of leeway in defining a disaster. And a 2013 change in the Stafford Act, which governs disaster relief, allows tribes to request a federal disaster declaration directly, instead of going through the state.That declaration would make the village eligible for funding from agencies across the government. That could include direct assistance to individuals to repair or replace homes, money to replace public utilities and funding that could be used to move to the new village site upriver. Walleri said Newtok needs about $80 million.It’s far from a sure thing. Even if the president issues the disaster declaration, Congress would still have to appropriate the money.But Newtok thinks it’s worth a try. Walleri said the tribe hopes to make the request within two weeks.last_img

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