Four days ago, a cry for help went out from rural Alaska via the Bristol Bay Times. Many of us have known that residents of Alaska's rural villages are having a hard winter. The weather has been unusually cold this year, and prices of heating oil and gasoline have been astronomical. Add to that a disastrous collapsing salmon fishery in Bristol Bay that left residents in that area heading in to winter with less than usual, and you have the makings for a humanitarian crisis.
So in desperation, Nicholas Tucker, from the Village of Emmonak (eh-MON-eck) sent out a cry for help. With 21 days left in the month, Mr. Tucker had only $440 left to feed and keep his family of nine warm, with heating oil at $7.83/gallon. As Emmonak runs out of fuel, it will have to be flown in, potentially raising the price to $9/gallon or more. While contemplating his own plight, he wondered how many other families of the 800 living in his village were having similar hard times. So he sent out a message on his VHF radio, asking his neighbors how they were doing. Twenty five answers came. Here are a few:
G. & K. F.: Young couple with family of five. Wife is unable to sleep and stressed out not knowing when they will be able get their next heating fuel. A 100-lb. bottle of propane gas that usually lasts four months is now lasting only two months because they use it to heat water. This costs them $200 every two weeks. They do not have hot water heater. Wife has very little income and uses $375, the one-half of her gross income every two weeks, to get heating fuel. She has no food for her family sometimes, because, she has to split the rest of what little is left for water/sewer and electricity. Gasoline for her 4-wheeler is very expensive. Her parents help her with food and firewood. They cannot afford a snowmachine or a boat to get logs. Heating fuel and propane is taking her food money away. Her added worry is that the village native corporation is running out of heating fuel and is being airlifted in. New cost is expected to be near $9 - $11 per gallon or higher.
P. R: Single, separated, with five children. (He chokes occasionally, holding back crying.) He and his children are staying in the same household with his brother's family. Cost of fuel is so high and everything else and we're able to get just a few things at a time. We have no other subsistence food left. Only thing we're surviving on moose meat alone and it is almost gone. Everything is so high - only able to get little bit. We can't catch up on our bills. We're really hurting even we are given some from other people. Right now, we can't eat during the day, only at supper time. And, it is still not enough. If there had been no school lunch, our kids would be starving. It is going to get worse in two weeks when our new heating fuel supply is airlifted in. Price of fuel will go way up again. I am lucky that the Women's Shelter is able to give me some coffee.
A. & L. M.. Middle-aged couple, family of eight. Family is buying heating fuel over food all this winter. They have no choice. Wife has a part time job. Husband's health, including a bad back, is preventing work - had lost his last job due to health.
T. U., boyfriend and children: Having hard time getting food and pampers and is on-call work. Getting food from elderly parents. Buying heating fuel over food. No food once in a while and having to cook whatever is on hand like rice. Sometimes, having to cook only moose for a whole week because there is nothing else to eat. There are days when there is nothing for breakfast and lunch and have to eat only one dinner meal a day.
Hearing these stories from his friends and neighbors, Nick Turner sent a letter to the Bristol Bay Times; a message in a bottle, asking for someone to help.
It is easy when we sit hundreds or thousands of miles away, to feel detached from the troubles of a small Alaskan village. If we were able to imagine ourselves living in such an isolated rural setting with these challenges, and were to imagine that we had five children whom we loved, and whose care rested upon us, what would we do? And if we were able to feel the desperation of these parents when the choice came to decide whether to keep their children warm or keep them fed, knowing that they couldn't do both, and that there was no end in sight, what would we do? In his letter, Nick Turner says:
I am reaching out for these families. Help is needed and cannot be delayed. I cannot imagine so many in this village are in hunger, without fuel, and other essentials and uncertain about their future. What is mind boggling about the whole situation is that they have remained silent, anonymous, suffered, and cried. The four villages in this region are in close proximity to each other and the demography is the same. Is this going on in your village?
This is not the time for any debates or questions. The winter-long anomaly in the weather, conditions, and the situation are beyond our control.
There are approximately 200 households of the 847 residents here. In just a day and half, I was able to reach only 25 households. Are as many as 175 more remaining silent? In appearance, the heads of these 25 households look normal. I am devastated from the revelation of these few houses contacted. Additionally, how many of those who are able to work are without jobs? Easily, staggering 400 plus! Some other households are still calling, but I have few hours to print this report for my testimony during today's fuel summit.
Though it may sound absurd, a massive airlift of food in the months of January, February, March and April will help our people. Any peoples, churches, organizations, associations, and government agencies ought to sent money to our native corporations to offset both the current fuel prices and the airlift presently underway. For over thirty years, we have witnessed in our region that our native corporations are just like people. They have limited income and their expenses have always been high. Why? Our Wade Hampton district has always been the most economically depressed than that of both our nation and state. We are in the most remote area of our state.
So, what is the state of Alaska doing to help its citizens as they face these conditions of scarcity that are beyond what many of us can imagine? The answer is, nothing. According to Mr. Tucker the lack of heating oil and food and the resulting threat to life did not count as an emergency to the State of Alaska.
A question. Where is our Governor? What are her priorities? I have heard her concerns about anonymous bloggers, about media coverage, about the legislature, and the gas line. I have seen a press release come out saying "There you go again" to the Anchorage Daily News. I haves seen lots of time and energy focused on how Sarah Palin feels mistreated by the media. But I have not heard one, single, solitary word about Emmonak. I have seen no press releases about what my state's government is doing to help its people in harm's way who are cold and hungry. I have heard big talk about a Rural Subcabinet headed up by our Attorney General, Talis Colberg, and I've heard that they're busy evaluating.
Colberg stated that so far the subcabinet has been in preliminary meetings to look at programs that are already in place and discussing how to gather information, what topics should be focused on, how the group will be structured and what support they could rely on. The group has no fixed meeting time and the date of their next meeting is unknown.
So, if our governor can't seem to get her eyes off the mirror, and her head out of 2012, and if the State of Alaska doesn't consider this an "emergency", then what is to be done?
The answer lies, where many answers lie, with us.
For information on how to help, click HERE.