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The federal government helps tribal communities in Alaska move to higher ground

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Climate change is forcing native villages in Alaska to relocate as riverbanks erode. The Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act allocated $170 million to tribal areas most affected. Reporter Emily Schwing has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

EMILY SCHWNG, BYLINE: Dora Mathew is the environmental threat coordinator for the tribe in Chefornak. It's a small village of about 500 people in western Alaska. During a tour, Mathew stops by Ben Flynn's house. She calls through a window with a giant crack down the middle.

DORA MATHEW: Interview you at 4? Interview you at 4?

SCHWING: Mathew sets up an interview for me.

MATHEW: Four o'clock.

SCHWING: OK.

And then she shows me how the house is sliding backwards. It sits above a riverbank that's eroding because the ground underneath used to be frozen and now it's thawing.

So it's like the whole house is moving that way towards the river.

MATHEW: Yeah.

SCHWING: How wild.

MATHEW: (Inaudible).

SCHWING: The beams that support the house are tilted at a precarious angle.

MATHEW: See that, the railing and to the porch?

SCHWING: Oh, yeah. It's, like, separated.

MATHEW: Now it's open.

SCHWING: There's an 18-inch gap between homeowner Ben Flynn's front porch and his house.

BEN FLYNN: And I keep adding plywood under my doorstep. One kid fell on that crack.

SCHWING: That kid is one of his five grandchildren, who also live here. His grandchild is fine. But inside, the cracked windows are a reminder that the three-bedroom house is becoming more and more unsafe.

So it's you and your wife, two daughters and two sons.

FLYNN: Two daughters and two son.

SCHWING: That's six. And then whole else?

FLYNN: And there's five grandchildren.

SCHWING: And five grandchildren - so that's 11 people.

FLYNN: Yeah.

SCHWING: Chefornak, like most villages in Alaska, is dealing with a severe housing shortage that's further complicated by the effects of climate change.

JANET ERIK: And if people get displaced, we don't have hotels. We don't have any vacant buildings we can put people in.

SCHWING: Janet Erik is the President of the Traditional Council in Chefornak. Her community recently received $3.4 million from the federal government to tackle climate displacement. The housing crisis here is also playing out in at least 100 other Alaska Native villages. But not all of them have received funding through the Biden administration's Branch of Tribal Climate Resilience. Chefornak aims to build 19 new, safer homes, but Erik says the federal money isn't enough.

ERIK: I'm happy for the start. At the same time, it irritates me that it's just enough for a start because the start means one season or just a couple of months, and then we have to halt everything and go begging again.

SCHWING: Some of the federal funding will help Chefornak's Tribal Council create a position to coordinate the work the rest of the money will pay for. The majority will purchase heavy equipment and build out a flat spot of ground for a single house. There's another home in Chefornak that sits at the bottom of the hill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He says come in.

SCHWING: OK.

I've never seen a house where the tilt of the floor is so severe. It's like the bottom of a boat, almost.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

JOBE ABRAHAM: (Speaking Yugtun).

SCHWING: Jobe Abraham, who's in his 80s, can understand English, but he likes to speak his indigenous language, Yugtun. So Dora Mathews translates. He says his house has been sinking for years because the permafrost underneath is melting.

ABRAHAM: (Speaking Yugtun).

MATHEW: He's not comfortable with his situation...

SCHWING: Yeah.

MATHEW: ...But he has to...

SCHWING: And he's stuck.

MATHEW: He's stuck.

SCHWING: The $3.4 million coming to Chefornak is only a fraction of what's needed to move residents to safer ground. Some estimates show it would take tens of millions of dollars to do it right in this village. Over the next four years, the federal government has allocated a total of $170 million for climate-related relocation nationwide.

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

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