HUGHES, Alaska – On a late September afternoon sprinkled with snow flurries, eight young adults in mud-streaked protective bodysuits and breathing masks installed blankets of insulation to the underside of a weather-worn cabin in the Alaskan Bush.
Two of them partnered off to move 8-foot by 4-foot sheets of plywood from a nearby shed to the house, while five others dragged themselves through the soggy soil in a tiny crawl space to fasten thermal lining to the underbelly of the home.
Later in the day, Cesar Flores, the team’s leader, stood beside a resident’s smokehouse observing a nearly six-foot-wide rack of a bull moose that was taken the day before.
“We don’t normally see things like this where we’re from,” said Flores. “We’re humbled to have been given this opportunity to come all the way out here and help a Native community recover.”
As a result of a major disaster declaration on June 25, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is providing assistance to Hughes and other disaster affected communities, including covering transportation and other costs for more than 200 AmeriCorps members and volunteers.
From their center of operations on the largest Native American reservation in California to a small indigenous village in Interior Alaska, the Hughes team worked tirelessly to remove flood-soaked tile and wood from flooring and walls, clear out spoiled furniture, and begin minor repairs on several homes that were damaged when the Koyukuk River overtopped its banks earlier this year.
They are specially trained AmeriCorps members from the Hoopa Tribal Civilian Community Corps (TCCC) — based out of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California —that helped Alaska Natives in Hughes navigate the rough patches of recovery and reconstruction.
Of the two dozen or so homes in Hughes, nearly a quarter of them were damaged by floodwaters that inundated the village in late May.
Hoopa TCCC members mucked, gutted and prepared six homes before handing them off to Disciples of Christ disaster response volunteers to complete the critical structural repairs. As the construction season comes to an end in Hughes, all but one of the damaged residences have been repaired and families are ready to overwinter in their own homes.
“It was a great idea to have the Hoopa AmeriCorps team come to Hughes to assist in rebuilding the homes,” said Thelma Nicholia of the Hughes Tribe. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it this fall if they didn’t come and help.”
Hoopa TCCC spent nearly two weeks in the Koyukon Athabascan village, a community of about 87 people where traditional ways of life still persist. In September, residents not only had to worry about repairing their homes, they had to hunt, fish and gather food to sustain their families through the winter months — a practice dating back thousands of years.
“Having the Hoopa group in Hughes was a smart decision and it turned out to be a great match,” said Ramona VanCleve, tribal liaison for FEMA’s spring flood recovery operation in Alaska. “They were a nice, thoughtful group to send in to a community so remote and with such a high percentage of Alaska Natives.”
Sitting on three square miles of land pinched between the Koyukuk River and a 500-foot bluff, Hughes is one of the eight communities in Alaska most affected by the spring floods. What’s more, the village’s lack of a road network combined with the state’s harsh climate made it a challenge for disaster response and recovery efforts.
Just before Hoopa TCCC arrived in Hughes, nearly two dozen men from the village were called down to the Lower 48 to help fight the blazes that ripped through parts of Yosemite National Park. While a chunk of the workforce was tied up in California for two weeks, Hoopa TCCC filled in where it could.
“There was a lot of work to be done in Hughes,” said Sebastian Ferris, a Hoopa TCCC member from the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “But we did it, and we happily did more than what was expected because we wanted to help this community — our brothers and sisters.”
Beyond home repairs, the members accompanied locals downriver to gather wood for stovetop cooking and helped to build smokehouses for drying moose meat.
Hoopa TCCC members embraced the Athabascan culture and spent most of their downtime socializing in the community. They played with the village children in the local playground and shared moose stew with the village elders.
“Sharing is an important part of Athabascan culture,” said VanCleve. “To the people in Hughes, what’s more friendship-building than sharing a traditional meal of moose stew?”
“We’re Natives, so there was an instant bond and connection,” said Luis Rea, a Hoopa TCCC member from the Chickasaw Nation. “We really felt like we became part of the family.”
Hoopa TCCC members come from all over the U.S. and represent several Native American tribes. The group serving in Hughes, in particular, is made up of members not only from the Hoopa Valley Tribe — an Athabascan group from the Trinity River valley in California, but also the Pit River Tribe in northeast California, the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.
“This is the second time in my 15 years of being with TCCC that we have been mission assigned by FEMA to serve another Native American population in a disaster area,” said Tahsanchat Ferris-Wilson, program director for Hoopa TCCC. “Our program is sensitive to the needs in Indian Country, as we call it. Native people relate to other Native people.”
In events like the flooding in Alaska, the State and FEMA rely on voluntary organizations and national service groups like AmeriCorps to provide critical help for disaster survivors. AmeriCorps, through its parent agency the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), enlisted Hoopa TCCC along with 17 FEMA Corps and 67 other service corps members and staff to join the recovery front in several flood-ravaged areas in Alaska.
"In times of great need TCCC Hoopa is always first in line to serve," said Kelly DeGraff, senior advisor for Disaster Services at CNCS. "The TCCC members often take on the toughest assignments and they are the perfect illustration of how powerful national service can be when responding to those in need."