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Backup generator headed to Tuluksak but may be too late for thawing freezers

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 13, 2014

BETHEL -- Freezers full of salmon, moose meat and Thanksgiving turkeys are thawing in the Western Alaska village of Tuluksak, most of which has been without power since Oct. 31 due to a failed generator.

The state of Alaska is sending a backup generator, which should arrive Friday, Jeremy Zidek, spokesman with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said Thursday.

Already food is thawing and people are upset, according to Peter Andrew, Tuluksak tribal council president.

"Right now the situation is we are out of power," Andrew said Thursday afternoon. "Most of the people have no generator. Some people, their freezers are melting down and going to waste."

The salmon, moose and store-bought groceries in his own freezer are thawing too, he said. Some people had already bought food for Thanksgiving dinner.

Few families have personal generators in the village, 35 miles northeast of Bethel and home to about 375 people. The state is asking people to share generators until help arrives.

Tuluksak School and the village store have their own generators and remain open. The village clinic is without power but health aides will visit people in their homes if it's an emergency, Andrew said. A rented generator is powering the post office, which had been closed, so people can get their mail, he said.

Mainly, residents are worrying over the loss of food harvested and stored for winter in a region where grocery prices in hubs like Bethel are double those in Anchorage, with costs even higher in village stores.

It was a hard push to subsistence fish for salmon this year too. Much of the Kuskokwim River was shut down early in the season to targeted fishing for kings to protect and restore diminished runs. When fishing from skiffs pulling driftnets was allowed, residents of Bethel and villages up and down the Kuskokwim River spent weeks filling drying racks, smokehouses -- and their freezers.

A Tuluksak tribal council member is surveying residents about what food they are losing in the extended power outage, Andrew said.

In a conference call Thursday morning, some village residents spoke at length in Yup'ik about the food issue, Zidek said. Nonprofit agencies including the Salvation Army and the Food Bank of Alaska have been alerted and will evaluate whether they need to step in with emergency food supplies once more is known, he said.

Isolated time

It's been unseasonably warm in the area, with highs in the 40s in recent days. The village at the confluence of the Tuluksak and Kuskokwim rivers is even more isolated than usual. The Kuskokwim is freezing but not yet frozen hard. It's too late for boats and too early for ice road travel.

The National Weather Service on Thursday issued a special weather statement noting that the recent warm weather and heavy rains have melted the snowpack and caused small ice jams along a 100-mile stretch of the Kuskokwim, a mini-breakup in fall.

"Travel on the river in places where breakup has occurred will be very dangerous until a significant ice cover has reformed," the weather service said.

The ice jams shouldn't cause flooding because water levels were low and the ice is weak, the statement said.

"We're not traveling on the river," Andrew said.

Broken generators

Efforts to reach a manager at the Tuluksak Traditional Power Utility have been unsuccessful this week.

The Alaska Energy Authority, a state corporation, learned of the power emergency Monday and sent a mechanic to the village Tuesday to work on the generators, according to Emily Ford, the authority's energy policy and outreach manager. The mechanic checked out all four of the utility's generators and found none could be salvaged, according to Zidek.

"The generators were run very hard," he said. "Maintenance wasn't always the best."

Parts were scavenged off two old generators but two newer ones failed before their time, according to the energy authority.

One of the failed generators was about 1 1/2 years old and the other was 3 years old, when their expected lifespan was eight to 10 years, Ford said.

The backup generator heading to the village Friday is a loaner that the community can use until a permanent fix is made, Ford said.

"We've worked with them on previous replacements of the powerhouse and replacements of generators, and worked to try and provide training, but obviously that's an ongoing project," Ford said. "We definitely want to work with the community to make sure they can maintain safe and reliable power."

Chartered rescue

The village may eventually be able to join a regional nonprofit utility, the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, but first it must have a well-functioning system, Zidek said.

"They don't want to take on a system that is in disrepair," he said.

The energy authority had to scramble to get the generator shipped, Ford said. It weighs about 8,000 pounds and is too heavy for a Cessna, she said. The authority chartered a DC-6, a cargo plane originally designed as a military transport, which will head from Anchorage to Tuluksak on Friday, weather permitting, she said.

The emergency generator is rated for 180 kilowatts.

"That is sufficient to power the entire community," she said.

Andrew said the community is ready for the help.

"Everything is wasting right now," he said. "We try to cook whatever we have in our refrigerator right away."