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Power is out in Napaskiak after a small generator fire

Napaskiak, AK
Mark Leary
Bethel Search and Rescue

On Monday, a small fire at the generator in Napaskiak took the entire Y-K Delta village off the grid, with the exception of the school. Many are using the school as a base for now, others are purchasing generators, and most are figuring out how to preserve subsistence food while the freezers are out.

The Napaskiak power outage also took out the two wells that serve as the community’s water source.

Now the school is the only place with power and water. The school has been sharing its resources with the community, although it is also in need of fuel, and borrowed some from the city today.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management says the state learned about the situation on Tuesday morning, and a team from RiverWatch, which started flights monitoring the river that day, took local government specialists and a representative from the state to Napaskiak to check out the situation.

“It looks like a breaker and some cables caught fire,” Zidek said. “And the electrician will have to arrive on scene to evaluate the situation and determine what needs to be done to get the system back up and running.”

They don’t think the fire caused too much damage to the generator itself, but the village of around 500 is still waiting for a visit from an electrical contractor, who’s supposed to arrive on Wednesday from Anchorage.

Their electrician’s prognosis will give the village a timeline for when power might be restored. It could be back on in a day or a week, but city administrator Joseph Amik says it could be more like a month. Right now, Amik says getting more small scale generators is a priority.

"We've asked Homeland Security to request for portable gensets to provide for the homes. To try to help preserve food they have stored.” He said.

A problem for residents is the effect on freezers, which hold subsistence meat and fish that residents build up during hunting and fishing season, and keep frozen for food throughout the year. Anik said he’s been busy trying to prepare his home, and is leaving his freezer alone.

“We are keeping ours closed to sort of try to minimize thaw.” Amik said.

For now, some are using personal generators; many are buying them. Some braved the ice-road on sleds and snogos to get their own in Bethel on Monday, but on Tuesday, the river officially closed.

Many are relying on neighbors and community.

“The community may have generators that they can share,” Zidek said. “Share amongst their neighbors and family members. And someone can chill their freezer for a few hours. And that is able to keep those subsistence foods frozen.”

For now, there’s no disaster declaration. With luck, they won’t need it, though some say they already do. The community has to determine that the situation cannot be resolved locally. Then they would start the disaster declaration process to request state assistance. They also could seek resources from the Alaska Energy Authority, and other voluntary agencies and nonprofits that fly in relief to in-need communities.

“They did report back that the school might need some mass care support,” he said. “Which could be feeding and other other support there at the school.”

Amik says he hasn’t heard anything about that yet, but community members have said it would really help. Right now, many people are relying on the school, since it’s the only place with a large scale generator and running water.

Joe Bavilla has been working at ZJ Williams Memorial School in Napaskiak for 38 years. He’s the secretary, and works with a team to manage operations. He says they’ve had a lot of elders come by the school to hang out, shower.

“Also to warm up and get a lot of coffee. Let's put it that way.” Said Bavilla.

And they’ve been keeping their resources available for community members. But he says the school needs fuel to keep its generator running, and right now, fuel pumps can’t operate. He met with the visiting officials on Tuesday, as the school is playing a critical role right now. He wanted to make sure they thought of the whole community.

“So this morning when I sat down with everybody and I raised my hand. And I said well, you all are talking about one subject. And that one subject was our utilities, our plant, and the problem there.” He said. “You're forgetting that there's other people in the community. Elders in the community, kids in the community, a clinic in the community, the store in the community, and the well. So right now, none of those are working.”

He recommends they declare a disaster. Right now, he’s sure the community will keep stepping up and working as a team. Still, he’s hoping they’ll get stocked up with new resources soon.

And he’s hoping to get gas for the school to make sure it can keep being the powerhouse of the village until the powerplant is back up and running.

“I'm nervous as heck about how long this will take,” said Bavilla. “How long it will take for our utilities to come back up. You know. Just take it one day at a time, see, see what tomorrow brings.”

For now, today’s visit by an electrician will help Napaskiak plan the coming weeks, with the river break-up around the corner.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.