Wainwright residents protest lack of mail service

Protesters gather outside the Wainwright Post Office on July 8, after missing mailroom openings for ten days (Photo courtesy of Raymond Henry Nashookpuk)

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Posts on Facebook were dire: “My baby needs milk,” “Kids going without diapers and milk,” and “Praying the post office will get someone here.” All while mail and packages sat in a hangar on the airstrip.

The issue at hand was a lack of postal service to the North Slope village of Wainwright, which has a population of about 550. Residents hadn’t received mail from June 28 until July 11, a twelve-day period that dried up supplies in the store and left people in need without food, medicine, and other supplies.

But when the USPS finally did open the doors on Thursday with the help of a relief worker from Outside, a lot of the mail was missing. Apparently it hadn’t even been delivered from Utqiagvik by Ravn Air, the sole air service provider to Wainwright, according to Wainwright mayor Raymond Henry Nashookpuk.

“Ravn held their mail and never send it, so it was practically empty when our post office opened no mail to storage, nothing,” he said over the phone.

It’s a concern that many in the area have expressed to KTUU and on social media: regular mail getting damaged, lost, or ignored in airline hangars in Utqiagvik or even in their villages. Ravn Air has not returned requests for comment.

“When we're taxiing out of the airport, we have video of passing through their hangar, their hangars are packed full of freight,” says Nashookpuk.

He said it is a serious concern for residents, who often order food and other necessities through Bypass Mail, a federal program administered by USPS that subsidizes freight costs to rural Alaska.

“Elders depend on their social security every month and dividends and checks,” Nashookpuk said between calls of trying to secure charter flights from Utqiagvik, the nearest hub town, to bring supplies to his village.

The day before, Monday July 8, he had organized about 20 frustrated citizens in front of the small, one-roomed post office to wave signs as an SOS to the cyber world in a small event shared on Facebook.

A link to the video can be found here.

According to Nashookpuk and other Wainwright residents, the lack of mail service stems from USPS’ hiring of a postmaster who left during the summer and Christmas holidays with her partner, who taught at the school. When the employee left for the summer holiday, Nashookpuk said he worked with USPS to hire a local relief worker who could open the post office a few days a week.

But at the end of June, that worker abruptly left, leaving the community blindsided.

A USPS spokesperson said that the organization was also surprised by the “unforeseen lack of staffing” and say in an email they are actively looking to fill the relief position that was vacated.

The spokesperson for USPS in Denver, Colorado continued, “We know how important the mail is to our customers in Wainwright and we apologize for any inconvenience caused by the temporary closure.”

He emphasized that the costs of housing, living expenses, and travel can be steep for small, off-the-road-system communities, and that makes recruiting all the more difficult. Still, he says that he is working closely with the mayor of Wainwright to assist with recruiting a local to fill the relief position -- until the full time worker returns in the fall.

But that still doesn’t solve the issue of undelivered and damaged mail.

Nashookpuk says that he runs a small delivery business embroidering logos onto shirts and jackets. He says he ordered a shipment in mid-May and was told that the jackets would arrive in mid-June. When the order finally showed up on July 11, only about half of it was there.

“A lot of things were damaged. I still haven't even heard a response for a damaged receipt for my business,” he said.

That leaves the community of Wainwright, and others like it, feeling like they are without recourse.

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