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Akiak residents say weeks without power have ruined frozen food stores, drained savings

The lower Kuskokwim River community of Akiak is seen in 2023.
ADOT&PF
The lower Kuskokwim River community of Akiak is seen in 2023.

Akiak has three diesel generators that are supposed to power the town, but they’ve been plagued by mechanical problems.

Since mid-June, Akiak has been without consistent municipal power. It’s the second extended outage the 450-person community has faced in the past two months. In May, the community dealt with a five-day outage. City administrator Aleck Jackson has said that it’s part of a bigger pattern.

“Power has been going on and off since last year,” Jackson said on June 28. He said that a series of cascading mechanical failures have taken Akiak down to one semi-functional generator.

“It’ll have to take two of those generators to power up the whole village and right now — there was only one generator working, so we had to disconnect the school, we had to disconnect the tribal office,” Jackson said.

In May the city made a temporary fix, but just a few weeks later another issue sprang up.

“From what power plant operators have been reporting to me, there has been oil leaking into the coolant system which runs through the whole generator,” Jackson said. “So they had to flushed that out. And then after they flushed it out and cleaned it out they tried to turn it on, but the power would be restored for about an hour and then shut off again,” Jackson said.

The City of Akiak owns and operates its power plant. It’s not a part of the village electric cooperative that powers large swaths of the region. So Akiak power plant operators keep things running on a day-to-day basis, and the city brings in a contracted mechanic when things go wrong.

“The mechanic had told our power plant operators to not not work on the generators anymore until he gets out here, because if they keep working on the generators and mess them up more, likely just that'll just cost us more money to repair them,” Jackson said.

Since the last generator stopped working a couple of weeks ago, Akiak has limped by with a patchwork of personal and tribally-owned backup generators.

Jackson said that when the current issues started, Akiak’s tribal government bought larger generators to power the water plant and sewer pump stations during the day. They aren’t on at night.

The local clinic reports that delivering health care has been more challenging during the extended power outage, but that the regional health corporation has provided generators, satellite phones, and extra staffing to keep the clinic able to treat patients.

Jackson estimates that around half of the households in the community have personal generators.

“There's a number of households that lost all their food that they had stored in their refrigerators and freezers,” Jackson said. “Those are those [households] that did not have their own personal generators.”

Jackson said that Akiak residents have tried to buy generators from the Alaska Commercial Company in Bethel, but they’re hard to come by. That’s had a huge impact on the community.

Olinka Jones is a tribal council member for Akiak Native Community. She said that she hasn’t lost food thanks to a personal generator.

“We were fortunate that our daughter let us use her generator to keep our freezers working,” Jones said. “But there are people that have [lost food].”

The broader Kuskokwim community has rallied to deliver non-perishable food to Akiak to help families who have lost hundreds of pounds of stored subsistence food. On June 29, a local hovercraft company, Bering Marine Services, delivered 940 pounds of donated food to Akiak, and others are organizing air cargo shipments from Anchorage.

But Jones said that beyond the lost food, it costs families a lot to keep personal generators running while the community generators are broken.

“There's people that will need some financial help for sure, since they're using most of their resources to get gas for their generators,” Jones said.

When Akiak dealt with its power outage in May, the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said that it was exploring ways to get additional fuel to Akiak. The local Alaska Native corporation also donated a month’s-worth of fuel to the community.

Jackson, the city administrator, said that local municipal and tribal officials have asked for a state disaster declaration. But he said that they were told that because it’s mechanical and maintenance failure, and not a natural disaster, they’ve been denied.

As of June 30, the state hadn’t responded to requests for an update or comment on how it’s responding to the power crisis in Akiak.

During previous power failures in Akiak, the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) has stepped in to assist. It’s a state-owned corporation that supports training and emergency response for communities’ energy needs.

“What's happened in between May and now has been just intermittent bandaids on the problem,” said Tim Sandstrom, the chief operating officer of the energy authority. He said that the corporation has around $200,000 in emergency funding per year to help deal with crises, but at the tail end of the fiscal year there’s not much left to help Akiak.

“Unfortunately, throughout rural Alaska there's more and more lack of operations and maintenance, which leads to more and more failures,” Sandstrom said. “Because the funding levels are lower, our ability to respond to emergencies is greatly limited by that amount of funding.”

Sandstrom said that in recent months the AEA has had technicians go out to the village, as well as provided remote assistance.

“There's a very large unmet need in rural Alaska for rural power system upgrades and for bulk fuel upgrades,” Sandstrom said. “You have well over a billion dollars [in needs]. AEA, with the funding levels we have now, is pretty much in a reactionary mode, trying to basically just stamp out fires as they come up. We've recently responded to the governor's office with what we thought would be required to make that a more proactive, a proactive approach. When we'll see where that goes.”

Jones, the tribal council member, said that the months of inconsistent power have taken a toll beyond the physical loss of food and lack of lights.

“It's affected everyone one way or another,” Jones said. “It's affected everyone mentally, emotionally, physically. It’s stressful, but I can see people are resilient here in the village and they're helping each other, even though we're having our personal issues and breakdowns here and there, but people are helping each other and they're encouraging each other.”

Akiak’s city administrator said that a mechanic should arrive in the village to work on the generators within the coming days. But to address the longer-term issues with the electrical system, Akiak’s tribal government is also working to apply for federal grants to buy new, larger generators.

KYUK’s Evan Erickson contributed to this reporting. 

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.