After a month-long outage, the village of Newtok has power again. During that month, families lost entire summer subsistence harvests stored in their freezers. Here’s why it took so long to turn the lights back on.
At the end of August, Newtok’s backup generator gave out, three years after its main generator died. The installation of a replacement generator has taken longer than anyone expected. Tribal Administrator Andrew John said that the delay was partly due to the challenges of hooking up new generator parts to existing infrastructure that’s over four decades old.
“The power generation system, it's on an old analog system that hadn't been upgraded since its installation in 1978,” John said.
On top of that, John said that the power company’s mechanic has been contending with mother nature.
“This tide, the tide is not on our side for this week,” John said.
The mechanic is from out of town, and John said that there’s no lodging for him in Newtok. He's been staying in Mertarvik, 9 miles across the Ninglick River, but boats can only travel between the two sites during high tide, and John said that the conditions on the water have been treacherous lately. Despite that, John said that the mechanic traveled to Newtok every day.
“Those guys were crossing the Ninglick river in 3-foot waves with breakers, white caps. That's dangerous” John said. “We've done everything that we can in the extreme weather.”
Although the power came back on Monday, Sept. 21, John said that there will be short intermittent outages over the next few days as the mechanic finishes testing the system.
Sandra Ayuluk was one of the Newtok residents whose food rotted in their freezers. Over the past few weeks, she has been staying with her family in Mertarvik. That’s because she said that the lack of heat in her home in Newtok has the air smelling unhealthy.
“Like damp. Moldy,” Ayuluk said.
Ayuluk said that she has not yet received any help from the tribe to replace her food. She hopes that the tribe will also reimburse families for the gas they spent to power their personal generators during the month-long outage. Residents reported spending $20 to $50 a day on gas.
Tribal Administrator John said that the tribe intends to give everyone in Newtok and Mertarvik a $500 voucher for the local store, and $1,000 credit with the village’s power company.
“That is still the plan and we haven't been able to, you know, print out and all that because of no power,” John said.
He also said that he is asking Newtok families if they lost any food during the power outage, and if so, how much. The tribal administrator said that they are still figuring out what they can do for those families, but he promised that help, in some form, is coming.