Mertarvik’s lack of a commercial airport may have already cost lives

Mertarvik is a newly constructed village on Nelson Island that the village of Newtok is relocating to. July 16, 2020 in Mertarvik, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Mertarvik residents say fresh produce is as valuable as gold in the new village. That’s because there are no commercial flights to bring in groceries, and charters can cost thousands of dollars. The lack of air service means villagers are living more off the land and, some say, healthier.

But it also increases the risks for those who need medical help. Not having a commercial airport means that medevac planes can seldom land on the village’s small runway.

Relocation coordinator Romy Cadiente says that has already led to disastrous consequences.

“We had one gentleman that lost his life because he couldn’t receive medical treatment in time,” Cadiente said.

When there’s a medical emergency in Mertarvik, more often than not that person has to travel 9.5 miles across the Ninglick River to Newtok, where a medevac plane can land. On one winter day, Cadiente says, the snowmachine ride was too much for a resident.

“Halfway through the journey he was already beginning to show signs of fading,” Cadiente said. “And unfortunately when they finally got here, they tried to revive him. But it was too late.”

Grant Aviation flies medevac planes for the Y-K Delta, including Newtok and Mertarvik. Vice President of Operations Dan Knesek says Grant’s medevac pilots have landed in Mertarvik at least once, but he says the runway is dangerous.

“It’s very narrow. It’s short,” Knesek said.

Mertarvik’s temporary runway is a repurposed road, 35 feet wide and just 2,000 feet long. Knesek says that’s half the width and less than two thirds the length of an average runway in the Y-K Delta.

“And it’s not a level runway. At the end of that short runway is a hill,” Knesek said. “The risk level of operations into Mertarvik is significantly higher than all other airports in the Y-K Delta.”

That’s why Grant only flies medevacs there during the daytime in optimal visibility and wind conditions, a rarity along the Y-K Delta’s coast, especially during the winter months.

After seeing the consequences of not having an airport in Mertarvik, some village leaders are questioning why the state didn’t build one earlier.

In an interview with KYUK, Newtok Village Council President George Carl talked about how risky it is to live in a place without an airport. A day later, he fell ill and had to travel 9.5 by boat to Newtok in order to be medevaced to Anchorage. July 13, 2020 in Mertarvik, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

“If I can tell the government,” said Newtok Village Council President George Carl, “If you’re gonna be building a village, a new village like Mertarvik, number one airport, because number one, the health. There might be accidents.”

Newtok Village Corporation Chairman Jimmy Charles says that the Alaska Department of Transportation turned down earlier requests for an airport.

“I don’t think they had any money available at the time when we asked them,” Charles said.

DOT denied that a lack of funding was the reason why the Mertarvik airport wasn’t built earlier. But the department also said that it would only fund one airport between Newtok and Mertarvik, although both villages have over 100 residents.

“The state has been clear that we only maintain one airport at Mertarvik, and that that airport in the existing Newtok site will no longer be operated by DOT,” said Aaron Hughes, DOT Project Manager for the Mertarvik airport.

Newtok was the first Alaskan village to begin relocating due to climate-change fueled erosion, but it likely won’t be the last. Asked that if next time the state would consider building an airport before residents move to the new site, DOT did not provide a clear answer. Spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said that it would “be speculative to make a determination about how and when to build a future airport.”

A day after Carl said an airport should have been built earlier, another Mertarvik resident had to be medevaced. This time, it was Carl himself. And like others before him, the council president had a nine-and-a-half mile boat ride to Newtok before the flight to a hospital.

The council president’s daughter, Charlene Carl, says this isn’t the first time she’s watched a family member make an emergency trip across the river.

“We’re waiting over here, we’re praying that they make it on time,” Carl said. “And I don’t like, I don’t like living that way.”

The airport in Mertarvik is still a few years away from being built. DOT is currently in the process of acquiring the right of way from the Newtok Village Corporation to build it. The state plans to put the project out to bid this fall and finish construction by the end of 2022.

The Newtok Village Council invited KYUK to see how people are living in the new village. Before traveling, KYUK reporters consulted with medical professionals and received negative COVID-19 test results. While in the village, reporters wore masks when invited into peoples’ homes.

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