The post office on St. Paul Island was shut down for the past week when the postmaster found herself stranded on a neighboring island and the already limited flight service to the Bering Sea town was stalled due to weather and mechanical problems.
Passenger flights between St. Paul and St. George were set to resume Wednesday evening, said Missy Roberts, Peninsula Airways vice president of sales and marketing, likely ending the post office's weeklong closure.
Since Sept. 23, postmaster Mercy Galanin has been stuck at St. George, roughly 40 miles southeast of St. Paul Island. She had traveled to the town to conduct an audit of the neighboring post office, said Dawn Peppinger, marketing manager for United States Postal Service Alaska District. St. Paul and St. George may be about the same distance apart as Anchorage and Wasilla, but there's rough Bering Sea water between them.
Galanin's work trip was unexpectedly extended, as planes were unable to land due to weather, and on two different days, airplane mechanical issues canceled flights to St. George, according to Roberts.
In the meantime, residents on St. Paul have been left without their mail, including food, car parts, and most pressing, medication, said city clerk and acting city manager Phyllis Swetzof.
"We have people with diabetes out here … it starts to get to be a health risk," Swetzof said.
In the town of nearly 500 people, the postmaster is the only employee at the St. Paul post office. And when the single employee is out of pocket, there's not much the U.S. Postal Service can do, Peppinger said. "We don't want unauthorized persons handling the mail," she said.
The USPS looks for residents who can relieve the postmaster during an absence such as this one. But for St. Paul, there are no replacements currently, and Peppinger said she hoped someone from the community would "step up" to take the vacant postmaster relief position.
The situation is not unique to St. Paul. "We have a lot of rural facilities in Alaska (where) we certainly need more people," Peppinger said.
When the weather is bad, there are few options for travelers. There are no vessels that can ferry between the two islands, said St. George Mayor Pat Pletnikoff.?
Temperamental weather is nothing new, either. "St. George is unique in that it sits right in the middle of the Bering Sea. Environmentally it is very challenging ... the weather is severe," Pletnikoff said.
Weather seemed to be turning Wednesday, though. "Winds are down and the fog's down," said St. George resident Patricia Machin.
A passenger plane touched down in St. George on Wednesday morning after a week hiatus. PenAir generally flies to St. George three to four times a week, Roberts said, and only once a week does the company fly "that little inter-island hop," between St. Paul and St. George. Generally only one or two passengers are flying between the neighboring towns, she said.
To make up for the lack of service, PenAir planned an inter-island flight Wednesday, on its usual Saab 340, a twin-engine turboprop plane that holds 28 passengers.
Some in St. Paul think that's not frequent enough, Swetzof said. "There's nothing we can do about it," Swetzof said. "We've tried what we can do."
Others were less concerned about the spotty flights. "This is something that you just get used to, living out here," Machin said.