How are the starving in rural Alaska going to survive?

crosspost from

It’s hard to survive in Alaska under normal conditions, but when things go wrong, they go very wrong.

Thousands of villagers in rural Alaska are struggling to survive, forced to choose between keeping their families warm and keeping their stomachs full, residents say.

I’ve been to Alaska and I understand how ‘far’ far really is. One night in the wilderness, we were told it was 350 miles to the nearest hospital. Certainly not a time for an emergency but those are the people who are experiencing a huge emergency right now.

His family has been out of food for quite some time now,” Tucker wrote about one resident in a letter sent to legislators and the media. “Their 1-year-old child is out of milk, [he] can’t get it and he has no idea when he will be able to get the next can.”

“There are days without food in his house,” Tucker wrote.

A single father with five children choked back tears as he told Tucker of his struggle to help his kids.

“Right now, we can’t eat during the day, only at supper time,” Tucker wrote of the man. “If there had been no school lunch our kids would be starving.”

Many of the tribal leaders said they are begging the state and federal governments to do something to help.

George Lamont, tribal administrator in Tuluksak, Alaska, said because of the crisis and villagers’ inability to pay their utility bills, he fears many may have their electricity shut off.

Why is the situation so grim this year? They are use to the cold and prepare, but this was an unusual year.

Commercial fishermen couldn’t make money from the seasonal king salmon harvest this year, because there was barely enough fish for subsistence. In fact, most fishermen lost money.

Then a brutal early winter brought the longest cold snap in five years. In September the temperature in many villages dropped as low as 20 degrees, a record low for many, according to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

The 1,200-mile Yukon River, which the villages use as a highway, froze completely in September, at least two months earlier than usual. That left residents cut off from some basic necessities, and forced them to have pricey bulk fuel flown in.

There are no stores ‘just around the corner’. Going back to when we visited Alaska, I recall we had been on the Greyline Bus all day near the Yukkon and there were miles and miles of miles and miles. Then, the driver told us that there was a restaurant about 10 miles ahead that had opened for us. That is the way they do it in Alaska. The restaurant knew when they bus would be coming and they would have customers. There are no ‘drop in customers’ there. It’s too far from everything. So, when we stopped we were greeted warmly and ‘the place was ours’. They had a delicious meal cooked for us and we all ate. There wasn’t a question of whether you wanted steak or fish. They had good choices and we all ate.

To get to the nearest store, Ann Strongheart and her husband, who live in Nunam Iqua, Alaska, take an hour-and-15-minute snowmobile ride to Emmonak, Alaska. Their town does not have a store of its own.

Normally, they would each ride a snowmobile, in case one broke down. But now, they can’t afford to waste the fuel, so they just take one and hope for the best.

At the store, the Stronghearts buy groceries and supplies for the family for the week, which cost more than $400. They buy only as much as their snowmobile can carry.

In many stores, 2 pounds of cheese costs between $15 and $18, milk costs $10 a gallon, a 5-pound bag of apples costs $15, and a dozen eggs costs $22 — more than double the price in the area just two years ago.

Many area residents don’t even bother with fruits and vegetables, which can be damaged by freezing on the trip home.

After shopping, the Stronghearts pack their groceries into boxes, tie them to the snowmobile, and begin the 25-mile trek home, passing moose, rabbit and fox tracks along the way. Watch how transportation is a challenge in rural Alaska »

The trip sets them back about $50 in fuel alone.

On top of high food prices, some residents are paying nearly $1,500 a month to heat their homes.

Besides it’s beauty and how well the ‘cooperative spirit’ worked there, I recall being taken by how expensive things were there and this was several years ago. I have traveled abroad a lot, but Alaska was the most expensive place that I have visited. And, if it is more expensive now, I can only imagine how much a meal in a restaurant costs.

Alaska has given many residents $1,200 energy rebate checks, but residents say it barely helps them with one month’s heating costs. Aid agencies, including the Red Cross, aren’t an option right now — the Alaska Red Cross said they couldn’t help unless a disaster is declared.

But the state hasn’t declared an emergency yet, and it can’t because of a state statute that requires the average income levels in the villages to drop below $26,500 — regardless of the cost of living.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s office said the state is trying to find a way to free up government help.

“Local government specialists in the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development continue to crunch numbers and seek creative approaches to finding a statutorily acceptable way to justify a disaster declaration, which would open the door to federal aid, as well,” deputy press secretary Sharon Leighow said.

Leighow said Palin is sending her new rural advisor, John Moller, to the area next week, accompanied by representatives of the Alaska Food Bank.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to step in and help the towns most in need.

“I find it ironic, tragically ironic, that it takes an economic downturn in the rest of the country for this Congress to consider an economic stimulus for Indian Country,” she said during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs economic stimulus hearing.

The villagers hold out hope that the state or federal governments can come through.

“People have really been looking forward to some emergency assistance,” Lamont said.

I am certain that if there is any place in the world where ‘people helping people’ will work, it is Alaska. I have never gotten over the spirit of cooperation that we saw there. To give you an example, let me tell you something that happened to us and there was more than one thing. We were in Anchorage and were going to Skagway which is a two day journey through the almost totally unpopulated area we are discussing here and even going through the beautiful almost unpopulated Yukkon Territory. I had proofed every ticket many times, but when I got to the bus terminal and was trying to find our bus, one of the very nice customer assistance people with two-way radios came up to me asking if he could help. You need to know that the bus only goes twice a week and if I missed this one, I would have missed half of our vacation as the next one wouldn’t go in time for us to get back to work. Without a word, he looked at my tickets and got on the radio. I thought he was going to cause me to get left as he was ‘chattering’ back and forth on the radio. Then, he said to me “This bus left an hour ago.” and my heart sank. Someone who sold me the ticket, which I bought months ago, had forgotten to account for daylight savings time and changes. He quickly told me not to be upset as he was making arrangements for us. I tried to tell him that I couldn’t go another day, but he was too busy on the radio to listen so I just waited. Then, he told me that he had a bus leaving to Valdese that he had arranged for us to take. I was really beginning to get upset now as Valdese was in another direction. However, he explained that he had radioed the driver of the bus I should have taken to stop at a souvenier shop they were near and let the passengers shop (They had called the shop owner to open up.) We were to get on the Valdese bus with our luggage and he was going to ‘speed up a bit’ until he reached the souvenier shop where he’d stop and let us and our luggage get off and board the original bus. Now, I have to tell you I never thought for a minute that it would work and neither did my husband. But, it worked like they did it everyday. It was unbelievable!

Throughout our entire vacation in Alaska we were astounded by the fact that ‘everything worked’ and everyone was willing to ‘go the extra mile’ even for strangers. I loved Alaska and the Alaskan spirit. I sure hope the government can get its act together and help the Alaskan people when they need it most.


~ by citizenjournalistreview on February 9, 2009.

One Response to “How are the starving in rural Alaska going to survive?”

  1. Wow, Citizen, Quyana Cakneq (Yupik for Thank you very much!) for helping to get the word out!!

    If anyone would like to help the YK Delta please visit…

    for more information.


    Ann Strongheart

    Nunam Iqua Food Drive
    c/o Ann Strongheart
    P.O. Box 7
    Nunam Iqua, AK 99666

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