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In rural Alaska, villagers suffer in near silence

Bush residents struggle to balance the need for food with the need for fuel -- the building blocks of survival in a frigid winter that has months to go. Some call for massive airlifts of aid.

January 25, 2009|Kim Murphy

TULUKSAK, ALASKA — As the temperature plunged to minus-40 degrees last month, Nastasia Wassilie waited.

The 61-year-old widow had run out of wood and fuel oil, and had no money to buy more. Nor was there much food in the house. But people here in rural Alaska try to take care of themselves. Her sister would come to help. Surely she would.

Nearly three days later, when neighbors learned of Wassilie's plight, the Tribal Council put out a call on the VHF radio that is the lifeline for most of the far-flung Yupik Eskimo villages along this remote stretch of the Kuskokwim River.

People who had enough gas for their snowmobiles immediately set off across miles of tundra, hauling firewood back to Wassilie's small house. A few offered helpings of dry fish, which most families keep in the larder for winter.

There was little more they could do. Nearly every one of Tuluksak's roughly 500 residents is performing a perilous balancing act between food and fuel -- the building blocks of survival in a frigid winter that still has months to go.

Life in rural Alaska always has been treacherous. But last year's dramatic escalation in fuel prices, combined with a disastrous fishing season, plunged the ramshackle villages of America's frontier into one of the worst crises in decades, prompting calls for humanitarian aid and demands for pricing reform.

"Holy Jiminy Christmas, what we're going through," said Dora Napoka, 49, the librarian at the village school. "It's like we have to choose between six gallons of stove oil or six gallons of gas to go out and get the firewood -- or does my baby need infant milk? Which one is more important?"

The public alarm first sounded from Emmonak, a town of about 800 people near the mouth of the Yukon River, when Nicholas Tucker polled fellow villagers and found many in a state of desperation: They were running out of food after paying up to $200 a week for fuel oil to heat their homes.

"Help is needed and cannot be delayed," Tucker wrote in an open letter to state authorities that was published in several rural newspapers this month, requesting a "massive airlift" of food.

"What is mind-boggling about the whole situation is that they have remained silent, anonymous, suffered, and cried," he said.

Tucker included a terse case list of 25 households he had contacted. It read like a report from a Third World country.

"Near-middle-aged couple, family of six. The husband cried as he was talking to me. . . . ," one summary read. "He receives a very small unemployment income and is out of fuel a lot. . . . His family has been out of food for quite some time now. Their 1-year-old child is out of milk, can't get it and [the father] has no idea when he will be able to get the next can. He has been borrowing milk from anyone he can. His moose meat supply is running out. . . . The electricity has skyrocketed and he can't pay all the bills."

From a couple in their mid-30s: "He and his girlfriend have no heating fuel. Whatever money he gets goes to getting gasoline for his snow machine to get logs. . . . Today, they had nothing for breakfast. Most of the time, they have some dry fish for lunch or cup of noodles with [crackers]."

As word of Emmonak's troubles spread, donations from across the country poured in. On Wednesday, a shipment of 5,300 pounds of food and other basic supplies was delivered by plane.

But regional leaders say dozens of rural villages -- where unemployment is at 65% and higher -- quietly are enduring similar emergencies.

The main reason is the price of heating fuel, which warms homes and powers village electrical plants. While the rest of the United States has seen prices ease since last summer, most Alaskan villages had to lock in purchase contracts for their fall fuel deliveries while costs were at their peak.

Worse, some villages weren't able to get their bulk deliveries of winter fuel by barge because the early onset of winter froze the river. Much of the fuel now must be flown in, which makes it even more expensive. Residents in Tuluksak are paying $6.99 a gallon for heating fuel, up more than $2 from last year, and $6.58 for gasoline. In some villages, prices have climbed past $8 a gallon.

A typical home here is a small, primitive cabin without running water that may shelter more than a dozen people. Even a family with a modern, efficient stove will spend $185 a week for heating.

"The oil is drilled right here in Alaska, and yet we're paying $8 a gallon? Something is amiss here. The oil companies are making billions of dollars, and people here can't afford to eat," said Pat Samson, social services director for the Assn. of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, about 35 miles southwest of Tuluksak.

The price for heating fuel and gas is only the beginning of the story. Groceries must be flown in at ever-higher freight prices. A pound of hot dogs in the village store costs $7.39, and a two-pound loaf of domestic cheese runs $17.49. A loaf of Wonder Bread is $5.85.

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