Letter to the world from rural Alaska

Neva Reece, Today correspondent
1/30/09

Earlier this month Nick Tucker of the Emmonak village in the Yukon River Delta wrote a letter detailing conditions for families in his community; he spoke of choosing between food and heating fuel, parents skipping meals to ensure children are fed and borrowing milk for infants one can at a time.

On Jan. 12 his letter was published in the Bristol Bay Times and on the Alaska Newspapers Inc. Web site. It was quickly picked up by bloggers, the Alaska Public Radio Network and the Anchorage Daily News. The bloggers started a fundraising campaign to send reporter Dennis Zaki to Emmonak and surrounding villages to get the story.

In a matter of hours, funds raised through the blog sites not only paid for his trip, but reportedly raised more than $4,000 in additional funds for fuel oil and other necessities. In Anchorage, food was collected to be flown in to the village.

On Friday, Jan. 16, Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development Commissioner Emil Notti, a former president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, facilitated a conference call with villagers from the Yukon Delta region and state officials. Several of those officials then went to visit Emmonak and other nearby villages to assess the situation. The officials included representatives from Health and Human Services, DCCED and the state’s Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs. They spoke to villagers and had a community meeting in Bethel.

According to news reports, Tucker and others, the letter was just the most recent of a series of requests and warnings about conditions in the Yukon Delta region where Emmonak is located. A poor fish run, a missed fuel shipment and other conditions have been in play for months and it was anticipated that this year would be particularly harsh. Recently a spokesperson from Notti’s office said that none of the previous correspondence requesting help had been located.

Whether the correspondence reached state officials may be up for debate, but news reports mentioning the impending crisis can be found dating back at least six months. In July KTUU, an Anchorage TV station, ran a story on the poor fish runs and its impact on the Yukon Delta and on Emmonak residents. On July 12 departing Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan wrote a letter to state officials asking them to pay special attention to the looming crisis in rural Alaska.

In August, Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, held the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing in Bethel to discuss burgeoning costs in rural communities. In September, the request for help for rural Alaska came from former Anchorage Mayor (now U.S. Senator) Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and School Superintendent Carol Comeau. In October, the Alaska Federation of Natives passed resolutions requesting the state address the rural crisis.

On Dec. 11, KTUU ran another story, this time on Emmonak’s missed fuel shipment. In part, the report stated, “The icy Yukon River blocked their attempt to barge in the winter’s supply of fuel. The villagers say the fuel they have now will last them until January, at best.” Subsequent fuel shipments were flown into the village at much higher costs.

Though these warnings seem to have gone unheard or unheeded, there is no mistake that Emmonak now has the attention of the state of Alaska, and beyond. Zaki sent video footage that has since been aired on KTUU and the state officials say they are working on solutions. Private citizens and faith communities are extending a helping hand. Food, diapers and other necessities are being shipped in from Anchorage and funds earmarked for fuel costs have been sent to village offices for distribution to those in need. Tara Jollie, the state’s Community and Regional Affairs director has suggested fuel vouchers. And, the Federal Subsistence Board and the Alaska State Department of Fish and Game granted a month-long extension for moose hunts for Emmonak residents.

In a press conference after the state officials’ visit Notti said one difficulty in accessing help for the area is that the income levels are above the federally mandated amount to qualify for federal disaster relief. He said the state is determining whether there may be some flexibility that would allow them to factor in rural Alaska’s unusually high cost of living. In the meantime, the state is making sure village residents are aware of all services available to them and said they will be prioritizing area residents applications for the new state heating assistance program.

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