The isolated town of Aniak, Alaska, relies on the post office for food and medicine. USPS debt and the pandemic are leaving its 549 residents vulnerable.

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The pandemic has taken a toll on Aniak, Alaska’s post office, leaving postmaster Eleanor Sanbei and the town of 500 vulnerable. Matt Dworzanczyk for Business Insider Weekly
  • The isolated, rural town of Aniak, Alaska, relies on the post office for vital deliveries of food and medicine.
  • But since the pandemic broke out, shipments to Aniak have slowed down, leaving the town of 549 people vulnerable.
  • As the US Postal Service grapples with a soaring debt problem and ballot-related uncertainty, the pandemic is still affecting mail delivery in small towns across the country.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Weekly on Facebook.

A post office in the rural town of Aniak, Alaska, is a lifeline toan area completely surrounded by water. Most residents in thewestern Alaska town have lived there for their entire lives anddepend on the US Postal Service for basic necessities, from food tolife-saving medicine.But the pandemic has taken a toll on Aniakspost office, leaving the towns population of 500vulnerable.Eleanor Sanbei has been the town’s postmaster for nearlytwo decades and knows almost every resident. “There are so manypeople that have medicines coming in. Every village needs theirmeds,” Sanbei told Business Insider Weekly. “If I close my office,they will not get their meds.” Eleanor and her clerk run theoffice, which is a central hub for the community, by themselves.The only way to get to Aniak is by boat or plane, and on an almostdaily basis, the mail is delivered to Aniak and then dispersed to12 surrounding villages. “If you were in a big city like Anchorage,you go to a Walmart or Sam’s or Costco, or you get your grocerieswith your vehicle, resident Darlene Holmberg said. Here, we’regetting our groceries, hopefully, from Amazon for some otherreasonably priced store. We really rely on the postal service forbasic necessities.” But when the coronavirus pandemic finallyreached Aniak in August, when it recorded its first case, it hadalready affected the local airline industry. Ravn, the region’slargest airline, filed for bankruptcy in April. The airline reducedits fleet from 30 planes to three, which meant Eleanor’s officereceived less mail. “We get mail four times a week now, which hasslowed down the mail considerably, she said. So I have to tellcustomers, ‘No, it’s not going to come in tomorrow.'”The slowdownhas had dire effects for local business owners, like EstherDonhauser Deihl, who owns a restaurant called the Hound House.”It’s been kind of up and down, especially with the planes notcoming up. And a lot of times, if it sits in Anchorage for quite a while, tomatoes will come up just liquid.”The mail slowdown alsoprevented the local school system from receiving essential suppliesbefore it opened for the year. “I can’t think of very many schoolsin the country that would start school and say, I don’t have linedpaper, but I mean, that’s happened,” said Gretchen Kelly,principal of Aniak Junior-Senior High School.To help prevent thedelays in mail, Sanbei connects with local airline handlers to tryto make sure packages are delivered on time. “There are customersthat call me and ask me, they have boxes coming in for theirgroceries. I keep an eye out for them, she said.The future of thePostal Service continues to worry Aniak as its been wrought with amultibillion dollar debt problem. But the town’s postmasterpromises to get essential items to residents who need them. “Wehelp each other, she said. If I were to call someone to ask themto help me, it’s not a problem. [We’re] all giving people.”

A post office in the rural town of Aniak, Alaska, is a lifeline to an area completely surrounded by water.

Most residents in the western Alaska town have lived there for their entire lives and depend on the US Postal Service for basic necessities, from food to life-saving medicine.

But the pandemic has taken a toll on Aniak’s post office, leaving the town’s population of 549 vulnerable.

Eleanor Sanbei has been the town’s postmaster for nearly two decades and knows almost every resident.

“There are so many people that have medicines coming in. Every village needs their meds,” Sanbei told Business Insider Weekly. “If I close my office, they will not get their meds.”

Post office
Residents in isolated Aniak rely on the post office for vital deliveries of food and medicine. Matt Dworzanczyk for Business Insider Weekly

Sanbei and her clerk run the office, which is a central hub for the community, by themselves. The only way to get to Aniak is by boat or plane, and on an almost daily basis, the mail is delivered to Aniak and then dispersed to 12 surrounding villages.

“If you were in a big city like Anchorage, you go to a Walmart or Sam’s or Costco, or you get your groceries with your vehicle,” resident Darlene Holmberg said. “Here, we’re getting our groceries, hopefully, from Amazon for some other reasonably priced store. We really rely on the postal service for basic necessities.”

But when the coronavirus pandemic finally reached Aniak in August, when it recorded its first case, it had already affected the local airline industry. Ravn, the region’s largest airline, filed for bankruptcy in April. The airline reduced its fleet from 30 planes to three, which meant Eleanor’s office received less mail.

“We get mail four times a week now, which has slowed down the mail considerably,” she said. “So I have to tell customers, ‘No, it’s not going to come in tomorrow.'”

Post office
Air deliveries to Aniak have declined since the pandemic broke out, making residents wait longer for their packages. Matt Dworzanczyk for Business Insider Weekly

The slowdown has had dire effects for local business owners, like Esther Donhauser Deihl, who owns a restaurant called the Hound House.

“It’s been kind of up and down, especially with the planes not coming up. And a lot of times, if it sits in Anchorage for quite a while, tomatoes will come up just liquid.”

The mail slowdown also prevented the local school system from receiving essential supplies before it opened for the year.

“I can’t think of very many schools in the country that would start school and say, “I don’t have lined paper,” but I mean, that’s happened,” said Gretchen Kelly, principal of Aniak Junior-Senior High School.

Alaska post office
The future is uncertain as the US Postal Service struggles with debt. Matt Dworzanczyk for Business Insider Weekly

To help prevent the delays in mail, Sanbei connects with local airline handlers to try to make sure packages are delivered on time.

“There are customers that call me and ask me, they have boxes coming in for their groceries. I keep an eye out for them,” she said.

The future of the Postal Service continues to worry Aniak as it’s been wrought with a multibillion dollar debt problem.

But the town’s postmaster promises to get essential items to residents who need them.

“We help each other,” she said. “If I were to call someone to ask them to help me, it’s not a problem. [We’re] all giving people.”