3-week power outage in Newtok leads to spoiled meat in freezers

The Ninglik River shoreline is mere feet from houses in Newtok on July 26, 2019. As Newtok residents await relocation, the infrastructure erodes as quickly as the land. (Photo by Katie Basile, KYUK - Bethel)
The Ninglik River shoreline is mere feet from houses in Newtok on July 26, 2019. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

People in Newtok have been without power for almost three weeks. Families without personal generators have seen their freezers thaw out, and watched a summer’s worth of subsistence harvest go to waste.

When the power went out in Newtok on Aug. 23, many homes flipped on their personal generators. Sandra Ayuluk didn’t have one strong enough to power her two freezers. After the outage continued into the third week, Ayuluk opened her freezers and discovered the worst.

“My food in the freezer is ruined,” Ayuluk said.

Her husband, Jonah Ayuluk, knew all too well the list of food items that were supposed to last them through the winter.

“Moose meat, salmon fillet, halibut, berries,” he listed.

Many of Sandra and Jonah’s friends and family, even if they had their own generators, couldn’t help. One of the Ayuluk’s neighbors, Carolyn George, said that’s because it’s nearing the end of the summer subsistence season. 

“I don’t have any room in my freezer,” George said. “It’s just heartbreaking. All that subsisting they did over the summer. All that hard work, just down the drain.”

Carolyn said that even for families that do have their own generators, it can cost $50 a day for fuel to keep them running. 

Newtok’s electric power system is extremely fragile. The village’s power company has two generators, a main and a backup. Tribal Administrator Andrew John said that the main one was almost 30 years old when it broke down permanently a few years ago. Since then, Newtok has relied on the smaller backup generator, which just barely manages to power the whole village and couldn’t last forever. 

“We knew early on it was just a matter of time,” John said. “And unfortunately, that little backup generator finally gave up.”

Newtok had a plan for that. The village ordered a backup for the backup, leaving it on the runway this past year, but couldn’t move it when they needed it. That’s because the village’s Bobcat tractor broke down. Andrew said that workers struggled to move the generator parts without the tractor.

“We’re talking 800 pounds a piece, and there’s two of them,” John said.

It’s taken almost three weeks, but he said that the workers were able to muscle those parts over to the powerhouse.  

“They went to the store and bought a can of mussels, took a big bite, and said, ‘Let’s go,’” John said.

With the parts now in place, John said that the workers should hopefully finish the installation by the end of the week.

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