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A massive storm destroyed fishing boats in Alaska, leading to fears of food insecurity

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The small, remote village of Chevak in western Alaska suffered extensive damage in the storm that battered the state last weekend. Fishing boats and hunting gear were destroyed. As Emily Schwing reports, residents worry the devastation means it could be hard to feed their families as winter sets in.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: The inside of Ryan Bukowski's freezer isn't pretty.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREEZER DOOR OPENING)

RYAN BUKOWSKI: Yeah, everything thawed out and refroze here.

SCHWING: The giant chest freezer is filled with meat. Bukowski was without power for three days. It's back on now.

BUKOWSKI: But these all thawed out and refroze. These were all thawed out, refroze - everything.

SCHWING: There are plastic bags of moose and seal meat and a store-bought ham the size of a football. Two other freezers in his house are filled with locally-picked wild berries and fish he caught this summer. All of this was meant to feed his family of nine through the coming winter, but not anymore.

BUKOWSKI: I can - I'm not going to risk it. My uncle almost died twice from botulism.

SCHWING: Yeah.

BUKOWSKI: And it was from things that thawed out and refroze.

SCHWING: Subsistence is a way of life for Indigenous people like Bukowski. About a thousand people live in Chevak, and the village isn't connected to the rest of the state by roads, so groceries are delivered by air. Prices are high and selection is limited. Local Derek Knight says it's not only food that's been lost. Residents have also lost the means to replace it.

DEREK KNIGHT: I was hoping to go moose hunting, but unfortunately this storm, you know, got us here. So I can't use my boat and motor.

SCHWING: Residents estimate the storm damaged or completely destroyed 90 of the 100 or so boats people use to hunt and fish.

KNIGHT: It's just devastating. Yeah, no, it's hard. But we have to deal with it, and there's just a lot of heartbreak.

SCHWING: The storm hit at the tail end of the fishing and berry-picking season, and in the middle of the moose-hunting season.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BURBLING)

SCHWING: Video on social media recorded during the storm shows small, plywood sheds floating away. The structures held all kinds of equipment - life jackets, gas cans, fishing nets, camping gear - all tools required for subsistence.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BURBLING)

SCHWING: The community stands on a tall bluff along the Chevak River, 17 miles east of the Bering Sea coast. But the storm surge brought so much water inland that, for a few hours, it looked as if the town was on the sea itself.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight boats just laying around like somebody emptied a bathtub filled with toys, and this is what's left.

They're tangled up in fishing nets. Pieces of lumber, garbage and clothing are strewn everywhere.

And you could just smell, like, the strong smell of gasoline and oil.

Losing a boat here, and all of the gear that goes with it, is like losing a ride to the grocery store in any other U.S. city. Resident Ryan Bukowski says losing everything in his freezer is like losing the store itself.

BUKOWSKI: So we're going to have to start all over. I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to have to try to figure out something fast.

SCHWING: Fast because this far north, hunting season is almost over, and the cold, dark winter is only weeks away.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Chevak, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "NEW DESTINATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emily Schwing
Emily Schwing started stuffing envelopes for KUER FM90 in Salt Lake City, and something that was meant to be a volunteer position turned into a multi-year summer internship. After developing her own show for Carleton Collegeââââ
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