Will Newtok’s Frequent Power Outages Go Away?

Sep 11, 2020

Newtok, Alaska has been without power since August 23rd, and many families have lost a summer's worth of subsistence food without electricity to run their freezers.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

Newtok’s Tribal Administrator says that the village’s nearly three-week power outage is almost at an end. However, it is unclear whether Newtok’s persistent problems with electricity will go away. The residents whose subsistence harvests were ruined as freezers thawed are asking how the tribe will make them whole again.

Carolyn George says that the only reason the food in her freezer didn’t spoil is because she bought her own generator. And the reason she did that is because power outages in Newtok are so common.

“Oh my goodness, it happens all the time,” George said. “When it happened in the wintertime, it was horrible. You know, a lot of people had to, like, sleep at the school, especially families that didn't have a wood stove. They had to, like, sleep at the school, wake up early, hang out at the gym while the school was in session.”

Newtok’s backup generator finally died after struggling for years to power the whole community. But the solution to replace the backup doesn’t solve the real problem. Newtok’s main generator, which would be big enough to provide reliable power to the whole community, has been dead for three years, and there are no plans to replace it. Tribal Administrator Andrew John said that it would have been difficult to find funding to replace the main generator, but not impossible. 

“We could have done it,” John said. “No lie. We could have done it, but we had to make that sound decision on what to invest and where to invest.”

This is a dilemma Newtok’s leaders face not just with electricity, but with every decision about where to spend resources. Climate change-fueled erosion has forced Newtok to relocate. But the community is still in the middle of that process, with people living in both Newtok and the new site, Mertarvik. John says that means leaders have to choose whether to spend resources on their new home, or on aging infrastructure that will eventually be abandoned. 

“It’s a very delicate balance,” John said.

Some people don’t see balance in the vast majority of the village’s resources being spent on Mertarvik, even though most people still reside in Newtok. For example, the Newtok Village Council spent the bulk of its CARES Act funding on building five homes in Mertarvik, which Sandra Ayuluk says is not fair. She and her family don’t have food for the winter because her freezers thawed, a direct result of village leaders not prioritizing electricity in Newtok. She says it will cost her about $1,500 to purchase replacement food, since the subsistence season is almost over. When she sees homes in Mertarvik built with CARES Act money, she sees another example of Newtok residents being neglected.

“There’s a lot more people in Newtok who could use that money for food,” Ayuluk said.

The village’s leadership is trying to make things right for the people who lost their food. Andrew said that the council approved using CARES Act funding to give everyone in Newtok or Mertarvik $500 of credit at the local store, and $1,000 of credit with the village’s power utility. Council President George Carl said that he and other council members would discuss providing residents in Newtok their own personal generators, and helping to replace any food they lost, but he is not backing down from the council’s decision to spend most of the village’s CARES Act money on homes in Mertarvik.

“We're doing everything we can to get the houses for the rest of residents,” Carl said. “It's for the people in Newtok.”

John said that the goal is to move everyone to Mertarvik by 2022. If they succeed, Newtok’s electricity problems and the rest of its eroding infrastructure will be behind them. He says that the dream is 9 miles away, and he says, “just bear with us.”