Interior Alaska communities are accustomed to the annual flooding that accompanies spring when rivers begin to thaw and the ice breaks. The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management invests millions of dollars in training to prepare local responders and residents for immediate rescue and response where transportation is limited and additional reinforcements are only accessible by air. But just as the full scope of the disaster is only revealed when the waters recede, the challenges inherent to restoring a community and returning residents to their homes are deep and complex.
Last May, the town of Galena was nearly swept away when ice locked up 18 miles downstream, creating a massive ice jam on the Yukon River. Residents, who earlier in the day had settled in lawn chairs to watch the annual river breakup, found themselves fleeing the rapidly rising water and car-sized chucks of ice. Small fishing boats and rafts shuttled families to higher ground and shelters at the city school and the Galena Interior Learning Academy. Many took refuge at the GILA school, a former Air Force base protected by a dike. When water levels continued to rise and threatened to over-top the dike, the Alaska National Guard sent in aircraft to evacuate residents. Every person in the 450-member community survived.
The destruction was widespread. Every home had some impact from the flood. In Old Town, which is located below the dike and along the Yukon River, water and ice rose to the rooftops, actually forcing houses from their foundations. Many of these homes were elevated, a precaution resulting from the Galena’s last major flood in 1971. Those residents who remember that disaster agree this flood was far worse.
Recovery from such a devastating flood would be challenging for any community in the Lower 48. But the closest city to Galena is Fairbanks — 270 miles away by air. Everything, including packaged food, clothing, vehicles and fuel, arrives by barge during the summer or by plane, with shipping costs ranging anywhere from $1 to $5 per pound or more, depending on the material.
It became immediately apparent that Galena would not quickly bounce back from its disaster. Families were separated, with most men at shelters in town so they could begin rebuilding homes while the elderly, women and children remained in Fairbanks or other villages. It would take time to assess the damages; time to clear the tons of debris and tear out soaked insulation, buckling floorboards and molding drywall; time for building supplies to arrive; time to repair washed out roads, fix the sewage and water system and make homes livable again. And time was what they did not have. Winter was coming.
Most of the few structures to survive unscathed were located at the GILA school and that is where many residents, along with DHSEM staff and government-sponsored volunteers assisting with the response, were initially housed.
“Fortunately for this event, we had the boarding school to shelter residents and staff,” said Bryan Fisher, operations director for DHSEM. “And we had a 7,200-foot paved runway to fly in materials and personnel. In most other communities in the Bush, you’re looking at a gravel runway half that size and it probably would have washed away.”
Despite those assets, Galena’s damaged infrastructure could not support the hundreds of organized volunteers that might be typically available to a community recovering from an East Coast hurricane or Midwest tornado. So staff and volunteers from the American Red Cross and Salvation Army charged with feeding and sheltering community members pitched 30 tents near the Bureau of Land Management. Dozens of AmeriCorps members, who spent days mucking out houses, spent their nights on cots in the GILA gym. Residents lived in the GILA dormitory and a small support team made up of staff from DHSEM and the Federal Emergency Management Agency lived in yet another building at the school.
However this situation could not continue indefinitely, not only due to the coming winter, but for the town’s financial future. Galena has two major legs to its economy: summer construction and the GILA boarding school.
“The town had already lost summer construction because of the flood, and there was no way we were going to allow it to lose revenue from the school as well,” Fisher said. “School starts Sept. 9, and we absolutely had to be out of all the buildings by Aug. 10.”
City leadership and the Mass Care Team began developing a winter shelter plan for residents, and a critical component of that plan would require staff and volunteers to remain in Galena through winter.
DHSEM contracted with Taiga Ventures out of Fairbanks to set up a responder camp on the southeast corner of the airfield. The camp contains 40 beds, with five set aside to support the camp itself. There is a separate structure for the canteen and dining room, another for an office and a bathhouse with showers, bathrooms and a washer and dryer. It is fully contained and self-supporting and will be in use through the winter and next summer. It also cost the state $3.5 million to ship, set up, operate and ultimately tear down, 75 percent of which will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Fisher said timing played a role in the camp’s cost. These facilities are typically used by mining and oil companies in the Arctic, and by July most are booked, not just for winter, but for the following summer. It had to be shipped by air, since the barges were full, and the limited space available on them is set aside for materials used in the town’s rebuilding effort. The last inland barge is scheduled to depart from Nenana Sept. 27. Then there are the operating costs such as heating the structures. A gallon of fuel oil can cost as much as $9 per gallon. It adds up quickly.
The camp also removes some of the burden off the residents for supporting volunteers. Kathy Bryson of Kennewick, Wash., was among the first volunteers to stay in the responder camp. She serves with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, a group made up of skilled carpenters and electricians who can assist homeowners rebuild. During the first week of their two-week deployment to Galena, the team slept on cots at the Galena Bible Church.
“Our team came prepared to sleep rough,” Bryson said. “We would have stayed in a tent and we could have stayed at the church. They were wonderful. But now we don’t have to think about a shower or food. It takes an enormous load off the community. They will bend over backwards to support us, but that takes away from what they should be doing at their own homes.”
The situation in Galena may be unique compared to other states but it is not unique to Alaska. Though this flooding event was particularly devastating, floods occur annually and the state is prone to earthquakes, hurricane force winds and wildfires. DHSEM and other state agencies are working together to prepare for a catastrophic event. In the past few years, the state has invested millions in purchasing life sustaining supplies that are scalable and portable, including salt and fresh water purifiers, emergency food supplies and generators. The one remaining piece is responder support.
Earlier this year, Alaska’s Division of Public Health began efforts to acquire a portable medical center that could also be used as a responder camp or even a community shelter. Fisher hopes the procurement will be completed by next summer when spring comes and the rivers start to thaw.
Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, of Georgia, worked with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management on the Galena incident.