ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It’s been a race against time to get essential disaster assistance to survivors of Alaska’s devastating spring floods. Now, with temperatures dipping below freezing and snow beginning to fall in the remote Alaskan Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, its State of Alaska partner and several voluntary organizations are working feverishly to get as many families as possible back into their homes.
Of the eight largely Alaska Native communities most affected by the May and June floods, the small city of Galena took the hardest hit. Submerged under as much as 9 ½ feet of water and rammed by massive boulders of ice that jumped the riverbank, most of Galena came to a standstill.
With just 470 residents, 97 percent of Galena’s homes were affected by the disaster, as were roads, power and water supplies, a health clinic, an assisted living center for the community’s elders and other facilities. The result is that 201 of the 372 households that registered with FEMA for disaster assistance are in Galena.
To make matters worse, Galena’s tragedy affected as many as 10 surrounding villages, as it’s a hub for employment, transportation and health care, while its boarding school makes it a significant provider of youth education in the region.
What’s more, like several of the other flood-soaked communities stretching from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea, Galena has not a single road connecting it to the outside world. Of the other disaster-affected communities — Alakanuk, Circle, Eagle, Emmonak, Fort Yukon, Hughes and Tok — only Circle and Tok have overland routes open year round.
In the three months since President Obama’s June 25 disaster declaration for Alaska, more than $10 million in state and federal assistance has been approved for survivors and their communities. The total includes more than $3 million in awards to individuals and families for home repairs and for other essential needs, including the replacement of life-sustaining tools, boats, all-terrain vehicles, and hunting and fishing equipment lost in the floods.
In addition, the U.S. Small Business Administration has approved nearly $3.8 million in low-interest disaster loans for the repair of homes and businesses in the disaster area. Also included in the $10 million total is $3.2 million in obligations to the state and local communities to help pay for debris cleanup, repairs to damaged facilities and infrastructure, and for costs incurred in protecting lives and property during the floods.
“Ten million is a good start toward recovery, but FEMA understands that assistance dollars to these isolated communities are little more than paper without the means to put the money to work,” said Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) Dolph Diemont. “For that reason, we’ve worked closely with the State and our voluntary agency partners to offer creative solutions to the challenges people are facing.”
With five of the communities accessible only by air and boat — and barge the only way to bring in large quantities of building supplies — FEMA is providing assistance with shipping costs of building materials for eligible applicants.
FEMA so far has received nearly 90 requests from households for assistance with shipment of materials, and has shipped more than 363,000 pounds of building materials, sheltering supplies and donated items. The barges not only deliver critical care packages for those affected by the floods, they provide the material resources survivors need to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Human resources — the skilled, extra hands to help with the work — are also desperately needed in the damaged communities, where subsistence hunting, fishing and wood-gathering is occupying many residents ahead of winter. Although limited in number by conditions on the ground in rural communities, voluntary and service organizations have provided essential recovery services to survivors in Galena, Alakanuk, Circle, Emmonak, Fort Yukon and Hughes.
Recognizing the travel distances and the scarcity of housing for volunteers from the lower 48 states, FEMA is covering the travel costs for a variety of volunteer workers, while the State of Alaska has stood up a winterized, 40-bed responder support camp in Galena, ensuring most of the beds go to volunteers.
AmeriCorps, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, Disciples of Christ, Mennonite Disaster Services, World Renew and Arizona Southern Baptists have been working steadily with survivors, mucking out and gutting flood-soaked homes or performing repairs and rebuilds. In addition, Galena Baptist Church members and other local volunteers are helping their neighbors. Thanks to these efforts, most survivors will be back home before winter.
There is still much work to do, however. The extent of the destruction means not everyone’s home will be restored in the few weeks remaining to ship supplies by barge before water levels drop, the rivers freeze up and the building season comes to an end. That doesn’t mean the effort is slowing down.
“Our goal has always been to get survivors back to their communities and back into their homes to the greatest extent possible before winter,” said State Coordinating Officer Bryan Fisher of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “While some homes will require more work next spring, the coordination taking place now will ensure that every survivor has a safe, dry and warm place to stay, and that their needs are met for winter.”
State and federal recovery specialists continue to contact flood survivors, going door to door in some cases, to identify any remaining needs that can still be met before winter. In some cases, a home may lack plumbing fixtures, an electrical or water hookup, or another essential service to make it functional — and the goal is to get that work done.
While sheltering operations have scaled down considerably in Galena, the Mass Care team continues to provide shelter, now mainly in the 12-room Birchwood Hall, to residents who are completing home repairs or who must be in Galena for work or other needs. In Fairbanks, State and FEMA recovery specialists also are helping a small number of remaining evacuees transition from a temporary shelter to more practical winter housing.
Meanwhile, FEMA is providing rental assistance to eligible survivors, while the State is offering rental assistance outside of Galena to those who are ineligible for or cannot make use of FEMA assistance. The State and FEMA continue to work with survivors whose Galena homes aren’t quite ready, but who wish to stay at home through the winter using wraparound support services such as showers, toilets, and laundry and food services. In addition to many other duties in support of survivors, FEMA Corps members are managing a drop-off laundry service.
After preparing and serving more than 17,600 meals at a Bureau of Land Management facility — much of the food donated by the Alaska Food Bank and the Alaska Department of Education — the feeding mission has entered its winter phase. Hot meals are now prepared in The Salvation Army’s central kitchen in Anchorage and shipped frozen by air to Galena. Survivors can pick up the meals, heat them in microwaves at the community center and take them home to eat as a family. Self-serve breakfasts are also provided at the community center. Food service will continue in Galena for as long as the need remains.
For some residents, there still are housing decisions to be made, and caseworkers continue to work with applicants to provide information on programs and policy, and to outline options, especially for Galena’s riverside neighborhood of Old Town, which took the brunt of the spring flooding.
“We especially wanted to provide options to Old Town residents, since our studies indicate it remains at serious risk of life-threatening flooding,” said FCO Diemont. “While FEMA cannot legally and in good conscience promote permanent occupancy of Old Town with taxpayer dollars, we are working with the State to provide opportunities for residents to move to safety.”
For example, the State has announced that several million dollars in additional funds to be provided to Alaska under the FEMA-funded Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will be earmarked for property acquisitions in Old Town, as well as for property elevations in the New Town neighborhood farther away from the river. Since participation in the program is voluntary, community leaders are discussing options with homeowners so applications can go forward over the winter.
State and FEMA Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation specialists also are exploring strategies and funding opportunities to help Galena and the other disaster-affected communities rebuild stronger and more disaster-resilient. Projects identified to date include elevation of a health clinic in Circle and construction of a new Louden Tribal Council Community Hall in New Town Galena, to replace the council’s disaster-destroyed Old Town hall.
While great progress has been made since the floods, there is much work to do before temperatures begin plummeting toward 50 below zero and lower in the coming weeks — and much work remains over the long, dark winter. FEMA and the State pledge to remain focused on this mission until full recovery is assured.
While barge shipments will soon stop until spring, critical food and supplies will continue to arrive by air, interior construction will continue and all other possible means of driving recovery forward will be delivered.
In addition, FEMA and State long-term recovery specialists will set to work with the community of Galena to develop a strategy for building a stronger, safer, more energy-efficient city for the future, using the community’s existing development plans as a guide. Meanwhile, coordination will continue through the winter in an effort to ensure that plans, supplies and volunteers are in place to pick up the rebuilding effort at first thaw.