Alaska villagers shelter in school after power outage

People walk down the elevated, raised wooden sidewalks - created so people don't sink into the melting permafrost - on July 5, 2015 in Newtok, Alaska. The community's generator broke this week forcing residents to burn wood and cardboard to heat their homes. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
People walk down the elevated, raised wooden sidewalks – created so people don’t sink into the melting permafrost – on July 5, 2015 in Newtok, Alaska. The community’s generator broke this week forcing residents to burn wood and cardboard to heat their homes. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BETHEL – Residents of the Western Alaska village of Newtok have been sleeping at the school and using wood and cardboard to heat their homes as they headed into a third day without power on Tuesday.

A state team flew in a new engine for the village utility’s broken generator Tuesday. Power plant operators were working to get it installed but needed help from state technicians expected on Wednesday, said Romy Cadiente, a mechanic at the Ungusraq Power Company who also works for the Newtok tribe.

“We are in the process of pulling out this generator right now,” Cadiente said.

Worries over subsistence foods in freezers

The 25-year-old diesel generator that powers homes and businesses in the village failed Saturday afternoon when the radiator fan malfunctioned and the unit overheated, he said. The replacement engine from the Alaska Energy Authority is a loaner. A long-term fix is in the works.

Temperatures have been in the low teens, cold enough to freeze fingers. Some people were making fires in woodstoves, but homes still didn’t have lights or power.

Many residents have indoor chest freezers still loaded with birds and fish, seal and walrus, moose and berries by the gallon. Residents are hoping the cold will keep the food frozen, but warming fires may work against that.

“We’ve got to put this power on as quick as we can,” Cadiente said. Villagers spend a lot of time and gas money on subsistence. “It would break my heart for something like that to happen, for freezer food to get spoiled. That’s why we’re hurrying.”

100 people sleeping at school

A separate generator serves the Newtok school, which opened up over the long weekend to help people stay warm. About 100 people — mainly mothers and children — in the village of 375 people were sleeping in the school and about 200 gathered there for a spaghetti dinner Monday night, principal Grant Kashatok said.

“Because the village has no power, we are trying to make sure everybody has a hot meal at least once a day,” he said.

Families spread out on sleeping bags and blankets in classrooms and hallways, and the school offered gym mats to those who needed them.

The school ran an extension cord to teacher housing, which is served by the village utility and lost power too.

Priscilla Paniyak and her four children are among those camping at the school since the power went out.

“I have to keep my kids warm, being up here,” Paniyak said Tuesday. Her brothers are mainly staying in the house, trying to heat it with wood. They came up to the school to eat. She said she was “killing time, playing Scrabble, being with family.”

Her family slept in a classroom. Her children, ages 7 to 15, enjoyed the adventure of it. It was hard for them to settle down to sleep, she said. She’s just hoping the freezer food doesn’t thaw.

The classrooms were cleared around 8 a.m. Tuesday for school, but residents were allowed to stay in the gym to keep warm, Kashatok said. Residents also were coming into the school to charge cellphones and iPads, Kashatok said.

The gym wasn’t open to basketball, though. A Newtok resident who had been ill with cancer died last week, and village tradition means no basketball right after a death, the principal said.

Equipment deteriorating

Newtok is one of several coastal villages that are threatened by erosion, and is the one farthest along in a planned move. But its buildings and equipment are deteriorating.

“Our goals are always to work with communities on the maintenance and steps necessary to prevent emergencies from happening,” Emily Ford, an outreach manager for the Alaska Energy Authority, said in an email. “Unfortunately Newtok is facing aging infrastructure.”

The Newtok electric utility already has purchased a new generator, which is in Anchorage. The village has been approved for a loan from the Alaska Energy Authority to pay for transporting and installing it in the village, Ford said. It eventually may be moved to the new village site, about nine miles away on firmer higher ground across the Ninglick River.

An emergency team from the Alaska Energy Authority, a state corporation, worked over the weekend to help the local operator diagnose what was wrong with the generator. They determined it could take a week to fix the engine, so they decided to fly out the loaner, a 2,500-pound piece of equipment that made the final stretch from Bethel to the village on a Ryan Air cargo plane.

Two pallets of wood also arrived on the Ryan Air flight and residents are distributing it to homes, Cadiente said.

Energy authority utility workers will head to the village Wednesday. Most of the work will have been done, but the local operators want the state technicians to look over the connections before the power is switched back on, Cadiente said.

The emergency help for Newtok, counting repairs to the old generator and flying out the loaner, will cost an estimated $30,000, Ford said.

The entire village is thankful, Cadiente said.

Contact Lisa Demer at or on Twitter

Related stories from around the North:

Finland: 35,000 people without power in Arctic town, Yle News

Sweden: Storm Helga weather warning for Sweden, Radio Sweden

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