The only aircraft regularly flying to one of Alaska's most remote communities has been down for maintenance for nearly three weeks -- leaving residents of the Bering Strait community of Little Diomede with empty mailboxes, bare grocery store shelves, and no way on or off the island.
Andrea Okpealuk works at the Diomede school, and on Tuesday afternoon she was escorting children to lunch. The kids were eating alongside classmates, but also other members of the community, parents and aunts and grandfathers. No mail or cargo deliveries since Jan. 22 has left store shelves empty, and with no checks coming in the mail, wallets are thin and essentials hard to come by. So the school has opened its doors, serving nearly 300 lunches and dinners to Diomede residents since Saturday.
"In our store, it's pretty bare. We do have a bunch of food here at the school, which will last for a while," Okpealuk said. Hunters have been on the ice daily, she said, but strong winds, rough water, and poor ice conditions have made catching game difficult.
"In our home," she said, "I think the hardest part is having milk for the babies."
Even with the school sharing its food, Okpealuk said, for mothers with young babies, no new stock on the shelves means there are few alternatives.
"It is hard when there's no milk," she said. "When you've switched your baby to regular canned milk to whole milk, to nonfat milk, to two percent milk, and then to nonfat milk again, and then now to powdered milk, it upsets the baby's stomach." She sighed. "A couple of us are going through that now."
The needs go beyond just getting the right food on the shelves. Late Friday night and into Saturday morning, an Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter had to be dispatched to medevac a pregnant 18-year-old from Diomede to Nome's Norton Sound Regional Hospital. While on the ground the Blackhawk crew and four medical providers were alerted to a 2-month-old with an airway issue. That infant was identified as a "critical patient" and also taken to Nome by medevac.
Diomede's remote location means there are not many options when it comes to passenger and freight service to the island. Its unique geography -- a town set along the shore of an island that's little more than a mountain jutting sharply from the Bering Sea -- means there's no runway, save for one that can occasionally be carved into the sea ice.
Just one company, Oregon-based aircraft operator Erickson Aviation, provides helicopter service to Diomede. That service is paid for with a $337,520 subsidy of federal and state dollars under the Essential Air Service Program set up in 1978. Under the program, the federal Department of Transportation pays $188,760 for the helicopter service, with the rest of the money coming through Bering Strait regional nonprofit Kawerak Inc.
Erickson's program director Chris Schuldt said the company only keeps a single helicopter -- a twin-engine BO-105 Bolkow -- for service to Diomede. That helicopter has been down for routine maintenance in Anchorage since its last flight to Diomede in January.
"We've had some maintenance on the aircraft, but the goal is to return it to service in the next one to two days," Schuldt said Tuesday. "Pending weather, (the helicopter) will return to Nome and begin operations as soon as that's complete, (and) make sure our aircraft are in the top condition before we begin flying passengers and cargo again."
Shuldt said Erickson's customers, including DOT, are aware of the company's maintenance status and plans to return to service this week. Erickson also contracts with the U.S. Postal Service for weekly mail service to Diomede.
According to Kawerak's Pearl Mikulski, who worked on the EAS contract for the nonprofit in the past, the contract requires Erickson to make a certain number of trips each year, but otherwise allows the company to set its own schedule when it comes to flights, as well as stoppages for weather and repairs.
Kawerak can do little, Mikulski said, beyond cautioning Erickson to use the funds in such a way as to ensure flights last all year. That's an especially difficult proposition during winters with poor ice conditions, Mikulski added, as the contract assumes an ice runway for part of the year. Last winter, the ice around Diomede wasn't thick enough to support a runway.
Andrea Okpealuk said that for her and the other residents of Diomede, every day without a helicopter means people are closer to not having what they need.
"Some of us do have meds that were supposed to come a couple weeks ago," she said. "I've had meds that I ordered a couple weeks ago, and I just ran out."
She sighed again. "Hopefully, in the next few days, we'll get chopper service here."
This isn't the first time Diomede has been without air service. Late applications for the Essential Air Service grant caused service to lapse for more than two weeks in July.