CIRCLE, Alaska – Four months ago, this small native village in northeastern Alaska was left devastated by some of the worst Yukon River flooding seen here in years. Floodwaters had inundated many homes, while mammoth missiles of river ice, known in Alaska as “ballistic ice,” had driven others hundreds of feet from their foundations. Debris and enormous chunks of ice littered the streets.
Today, Circle is steadily working its way back to normalcy, thanks in large part to a united effort among the local villagers, Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers from across the United States, the State of Alaska and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Circle is a small community of about 90 people, predominantly Athabascan Natives. Employment for residents is provided primarily by the tribe, health clinic, Circle School and a few local businesses, including a telephone service and a general store. With a limited cash economy and the high cost of imported food, subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering is a way of life, a tradition for Athabascans dating back thousands of years.
Like other remote Alaskan communities, Circle is very close-knit and self-reliant. However, First Chief Jessica Boyle welcomed the faith-based group’s aid with rebuilding, opening the door for acceptance of volunteers from the Mennonite Disaster Service into the community.
Over six weeks in August and September, the volunteers lived in the village, repairing and rebuilding flood-damaged homes by day and sleeping on cots in the local community hall by night. Known for their skilled carpentry and meticulous workmanship, the Mennonites often worked nine-hour days, six days a week ― and sometimes well into the evening ― to accomplish their goal of completing work on eight homes before winter.
“It was unique that we were right in the center of the community, and we’d stop to talk and visit,” said Mennonite Disaster Service Project Director Wilbur Litwiller. “They either lived next door or nearby, and we learned to know the people we worked with.”
As a result of a major disaster declaration on June 25, FEMA is aiding the community in its recovery, including shipment of building materials to Circle and funds to cover the cost of transportation and meals for the 27 Mennonite volunteers who worked in Circle.
In addition, FEMA has awarded over $265,000 to eligible residents to help pay for the home repairs as well as other disaster-related needs, while FEMA’s Public Assistance program has obligated $520,000 toward repair of the tribal center, campground, youth camp, medical clinic and the establishment of a temporary clinic. Also underway are $151,000 in hazard mitigation projects designed to prevent future flood damage in the village, including elevation of eight buildings.
“As the federal partner in this effort, it’s extremely satisfying to see the progress that has been made in Circle.” said Federal Coordinating Officer Dolph Diemont of FEMA. “Perhaps more significantly, the Mennonites built relationships with the community that will last well beyond this recovery mission.”
Logistically, recovery in Circle ran smoothly. A two-lane, partially gravel road that connects Circle to Fairbanks, 160 miles south of the village, allowed supplies to be brought in more readily and dependably than other flood-impacted communities that lack roads to the outside.
As the work was wrapping up the last week in September, the Circle community hosted a ceremony, known as a potlatch, to dedicate the rebuilt homes and celebrate the new friendships created as a result of the cooperative effort. The festivities included performances of traditional dances by school children in Athabascan attire and the sharing of customary Native dishes, such as moose stew.
“The community gave us the potlatch in appreciation for what we did, which was very special and the best thank you I’ve received in quite some time,” Litwiller said.