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Our debt to places that are sinking

US policy doesn’t properly recognize slow-moving disasters like climate change — while marginalized communities face the rising waters.

The village of Isle de Jean Charles, La., surrounded by the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico.JOSH HANER/NYT

In a few years the school at Newtok, Alaska, will be in the river. As the permafrost melts, the land that the village was built on, in the low-lying Yukon River Delta, is softening. Unfrozen ground erodes quickly, and Newtok, an Alaska Native village of 300, is losing up to 90 feet of shoreline per year.

The school is why Newtok was put here in the first place. It was the farthest upriver that a Bureau of Indian Affairs barge could travel with construction materials. Once the school was completed in 1958, the Yup’ik people — who traditionally moved with the seasons — had to stay put and enroll their kids. Today, staying put is untenable, but the Yup’ik people don’t have many options.


Similar stories are playing out in more than 100 native villages along Alaska’s coast as the warming of the planet raises sea levels, makes ice recede sooner, and melts permafrost. In the lower 48 states, storm surges and river flooding are threatening hundreds more Indigenous and majority-Black communities.

The federal government would seem to be extra-obligated to relocate people who ended up in these vanishing and vulnerable locations as a result of its own exclusionist policies, from the Indian Removal Act to residential redlining practices. Yet no systematic process exists for relocating an environmentally threatened population — there’s only an ad-hoc approach that is underfunded and slow and fails to comprehend people’s real needs. Nor is there a mechanism for recognizing the role government often played in creating that threat.

A fisherman with freshly caught salmon in Newtok in 2015.Andrew Burton/Photographer: Andrew Burton/Gett

Though it may not feel like it to the residents of Newtok, the loss of their community — like almost all of the impacts of climate change — is considered a “slow-onset emergency.” This awkward characterization matters because a sudden emergency, like a hurricane or flood, is what the US system of disaster aid is designed to remedy. The Stafford Act, which defines what “disaster” means to the federal government, does not recognize slow-moving catastrophes.


In 2015, President Barack Obama visited coastal Alaska to highlight the threats posed by climate change. The following year, Newtok submitted a formal disaster declaration. It was denied. Administration officials cited the Stafford Act. Though Newtok had already lost its sewage system, garbage dump, barge landing, and boat dock to erosion, the unraveling of the community was too slow to qualify as a “disaster” under Federal Emergency Management Agency rules.

Newtok has been trying to move for 30 years. A new site, called Mertarvik, was selected by the community in 2003. Slowly, an airstrip was built, then 11 homes, a barge landing, two wells, and an evacuation/community center that doubles as a temporary school. But two-thirds of the villagers still live in the old location, which tribal leaders fear will wash away before the move is completed.

Places like Mertarvik are stuck in a regulatory black hole that makes relocation extremely difficult. Jocelyn Fenton, who manages the village infrastructure protection program for the Denali Commission, a government entity created by Congress to assist rural Alaskans, says that in Mertarvik, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) won’t build homes without electricity or drinking water, while the Department of Agriculture won’t build water infrastructure unless there are houses.

Newtok, Alaska, as seen from a plane in 2015. A replacement village called Mertavik is slowly taking shape nine miles away.Andrew Burton/Getty

Abroad, however, the federal government can do things differently.

From 2012 to 2019, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) ran a Coastal Community Adaptation Project in 67 communities in nine countries. One of those communities is Vunisavisavi, a Fijian village similar in many ways to Newtok: Both are coastal and rural, threatened by rising seas, with a traditional subsistence economy. In Vunisavisavi, USAID paid to build four new cyclone-proof homes and fortify seven more.


“Why are we building preschools and clinics in Mongolia and Laos when we have needs in Alaska?” asks Fenton, whose commission is now leading the Newtok relocation effort and working with six other Alaska Native communities that may need to move, plus many more that want to stay but need help fortifying some areas or retreating from others.

In Fiji, USAID didn’t award relocation and cyclone-proofing based on a home’s market value. After all, how much is a sinking, flooding home without basic sanitation worth? Yet that is exactly the process that’s typically used to relocate someone inside the United States, says Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awards buyouts, or payments to individual property owners, based on market value, says Forbes, which is why its hazard mitigation grant program “doesn’t reach folks that we’re trying to reach.”

Forbes is leading perhaps the most successful climate migration in US history, that of Isle de Jean Charles. His organization won a $48 million grant from HUD as part of a $1 billion package the agency was authorized to distribute following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These grants were unique because they paid to relocate people and fortify homes before a disaster struck. Historically, Forbes says, “we rarely have resources to mitigate disasters, but we always have resources to go help people afterwards.” Though the latter approach is exponentially more expensive and more traumatic, he says, it seems “baked into our response and recovery process.”


Like the Yup’ik people of Newtok, the Houma people of Isle de Jean Charles never chose to live there. They were originally from around Baton Rouge, where a red stick French explorers saw was said to mark the boundary of their hunting ground. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 sought to march this riverine people off to dry Oklahoma. The Houma resisted. Fleeing south, they arrived at Isle de Jean Charles, a lush swath of marshland southwest of New Orleans, the literal end of the earth.

Once as large as 22,000 acres, the island has lost 98 percent of its landmass and is still shrinking. According to a state website: “The land where island residents and their families once hunted, trapped, grazed animals and farmed is now open water. Unfortunately, the challenges of restoring or preserving the island’s landmass are insurmountable.”

Thirty-seven of the island’s 40 families — mostly members of the United Houma Nation tribe and the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees — have elected to move to New Isle, the new $48 million HUD-funded village, located on 515 inland acres. Yet at a cost of more than $1 million per household moved, New Isle is not a viable precedent. “The money we’re spending per family is way more than we’re going to be able to spend as we take this process and scale it to bigger communities,” Forbes acknowledges. “But we’ve got to learn how to do it, and the only way to do that is to start doing it.”


Forbes thinks the costs will go down as governments and nongovernmental organizations get better at moving people. But without a lead agency on climate migration — which the Government Accountability Office has recommended be established — and without an amendment to the Stafford Act, the best Forbes can hope for is incremental change in the face of a vast and growing need.

Housing renderings were displayed in April on the site of the new development for residents of Isle de Jean Charles who are leaving the eroding and sinking island.Kezia Setyawan/Associated Press

There are indications, says Forbes, that laws and policies are “continuing to evolve in a good way.” Language in a largely overlooked water resources bill passed in December 2020 directs the US Army Corps of Engineers to recommend 10 projects to Congress that would reduce the risk of flooding or storm damage in “an economically disadvantaged community, including an economically disadvantaged minority community.” In these special cases, the Corps will not have to demonstrate to the same extent that the benefits of such projects outweigh the costs.

This change seems technical, but it is actually quite radical. Under the usual system, the Corps weighs, for example, the value of assets protected by a floodwall against the cost of building that wall. If the roads and bridges and rail lines and homes and schools behind the potential wall aren’t valuable enough, it won’t be built, and the area will be left to flood.

Similar to FEMA’s buyout program, the old cost-benefit metrics valued the suffering of someone with an expensive home more than the suffering of someone with a cheap home, while ignoring “the inconveniences, the misery, of a family having to deal with being flooded, no matter how much money that family makes or how valuable their house is,” Forbes says. “Differentiating between that suffering doesn’t make sense.”

Another community Forbes is working to move, Pecan Acres, has flooded 17 times since it was built in the 1970s. The majority-Black subdivision of about 40 homes near New Roads, La., “never should have been built,” he says, because the location is too flood prone. But he doesn’t blame the buyers, who — like most Americans — viewed home ownership as a way to build wealth and join the middle class.

The righting of past wrongs has not been the primary consideration in any of the relocation projects that Forbes or Jocelyn Fenton, his Alaskan counterpart, have worked on. But it would be easy to make such a case, if federal ears were willing to listen. Consider the legacy of redlining, housing covenants, Jim Crow, and a century of Indian removal policies. Some people chose to live in risky places, but others had no choice — and that should matter.

Tyler J. Kelley is a freelance journalist and author of “Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways.”