One afternoon in the waning days of winter, the most powerful man in Newtok, Alaska, hopped on a plane and flew 1,000 miles to plead for the survival of his village. Stanley Tom, Newtok's administrator, had a clear purpose for his trip: find the money to move the village on the shores of the Bering Sea out of the way of an approaching disaster caused by climate change.
Newtok was rapidly losing ground to erosion. The land beneath the village was falling into the river. Tom needed money for bulldozers to begin preparing a new site for the village on higher ground. He needed funds for an airstrip. He came back from his meetings in Juneau, the Alaskan state capital, with expressions of sympathy -- but nothing in the way of the cash he desperately needed. "It's really complicated," he said. "There are a lot of obstacles."
Those obstacles -- financial, legal, and a supremely frustrating bureaucratic process -- had slowed down the move for so long that some in Newtok, which is about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the U.S. from Russia, feared they would be stuck as the village went down around them, houses swallowed up by the river.
"It's really alarming," said Tom, slumped in an armchair a few hours after his return to the village. "I have a hard time sleeping, and I'm getting up early in the morning. I am worried about it every day."
The uncertainty was tearing the village apart. It also began to turn the village against Tom.
Over the winter, a large group of villagers decided that their administrator was not up to the job. By the time he returned from this particular trip, the dissidents had voted to replace the village council and to sack Tom -- a vote that he ignored.
"The way I see it, we need someone who knows how to do the work," said Katherine Charles, one of Tom's most vocal critics. "I feel like we are being neglected. We are still standing here and we don't know when we are going to move. For years now we have been frustrated. I have to ask myself: Why are we even still here?"