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Rebuilding Eagle Village: Community rises anew from Yukon River ice, flood devastation

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Posted: Sunday, November 27, 2011 11:57 am | Updated: 1:31 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

EAGLE VILLAGE, Alaska - Ice and floodwaters in May 2009 swept away more than 100 years of history with the destruction of Eagle Village. The small log cabins that had once populated the long-established community known as Ninak’ay to the Han people lay strewn along the banks of the Yukon River. The homes, which had been handed down from one generation to the next, were demolished.

Along with the cabins, all the public buildings in the village were destroyed, including the community hall, the office of the village public safety officer, the health clinic and St. John’s Episcopal Church. The loss of this traditional Native village was an enormous blow to the residents of the tiny community of about 20 year-round residents.

But now, two years later, a new village stands three miles away on higher ground, safe from floods.

New site, new amenities

The tribe recently celebrated the completion of the new village with a gathering at the new community center. A handsome log structure, the new Charlie’s Hall so far lacks some of the warmth and charm of the old hall. “It had a lot of nostalgia,” said Joyce Roberts, first chief and tribal administrator, of the old building with uneven floors and uncomfortable wooden benches.

“It was a good gathering place for memorials and potlatches.”

The new village has a modern health clinic, a garage, a cache, a guest cabin, a sauna, and a storage building that might someday be converted to a laundry.

Planning for the new village actually began eight to 10 years ago in recognition that the site of the old village was vulnerable to flooding. A tribal office was built at the new site several years ago, as were a few homes, but many people were reluctant to leave their cabins along the river.

The new village is tucked into the woods and the river is out of sight. For the Han, “the people of the river,” living in the new village — away from the ebb and flow of life on the Yukon — has required some adjustment.

The change has been particularly difficult for the elders.

“It’s hard for the older people to accept it,” Roberts said. “It’s different. But people are slowly beginning to embrace it. They like it that everybody has good, livable homes.”

All of the cabins in the original village were old and lacked running water. That’s not the case anymore.

“What I like about my new house is that I have a sink, a shower, an indoor bathroom, a 100-gallon water tank and a Toyo stove,' Eagle Village resident Roger David said.

Bigger and better clinic

Eagle Village was eligible for funds to rebuild its small health clinic. The old building was too small to adequately serve the community. Another disadvantage of the old clinic, said community health practitioner Bruce Atkinson, was its lack of running water.

“It was hard to keep sanitary and we had to wash our hands in cold water,” he said.

The tribe used additional funding from the Indian Health Service and money diverted from other buildings eligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a larger, fully equipped clinic that could better serve the broader Eagle and Eagle Village area.

Called Bozt’ow Zho, or “Medicine House,” the 2,200 square foot clinic is almost twice the size of the old one. It boasts a small lobby, an emergency room, an exam room, a dental room, a lab/pharmaceutical supply room, a large office with room enough for two health aides and telemedicine computers, a behavioral health aide office, a bathroom with shower and a small apartment for visiting medical professionals.

Roberts is especially pleased with the fully equipped dental office. In the past, when the dentist arrived for the once-a-year visit, they had to fly in 500 pounds of equipment, including a dental chair to set up in the tribal office. Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium served as project and construction manager on the clinic, which cost more than $2 million. The clinic had been in the planning stages since 2007 but was put on the fast track after the flood, according to Michael Chard, project manager for the health consortium.

Contracting, costs, jobs

FEMA approved and obligated $4.1 million in public assistance grants, nearly all of it toward the repair or replacement of Eagle Village’s public buildings and infrastructure. With Alaska’s 25 percent cost share, the total funds directly to rebuild Eagle Village were just under $5.5 million.

Scattered throughout the surrounding woods are eight cabins built immediately after the flood by volunteers from the faith-based Samaritan’s Purse and the Mennonite Disaster Service.

The sturdy, well-insulated cabins were built with FEMA money, with additional funds provided by Samaritan’s Purse. Most are plumbed for running water, although the installation of wells will have to wait until 2013, when funds may be available from the ANTHC Scattered Sites program.

The total FEMA expenditures on housing and home repair for both Eagle Village and the city of Eagle was $390,000, with an additional $493,000 spent on field personnel, materials, and transportation, said Mike Howard, spokesman for FEMA’s Region 10. The estimated value of the volunteer construction labor was $1.1 million.

Most of the public buildings were built by Arctic Contracting with FEMA funds, using all local labor except for supervisor positions. The project provided six locals with full-time work for about four months in 2010, with additional work in 2011 as water and sewer (not part of the original contract, and paid for by the village) were added to Charlie’s Hall and the boat ramp at the old village was rebuilt.

‘A thriving community’

When the floodwaters receded in 2009, all the grave markers had been swept away. The old cemetery was just a blank spot next to the road until a pole fence was erected recently, a flag put up, and a large flat rock erected as a monument to those now buried in unmarked graves. A new cemetery is being carved out of the woods near the new village.

To Pete Williams, president and CEO of Ch’izhur, the parent company of Arctic Contracting, the rock is “a stark reminder of the extent of the devastation that was dealt to that community. Now you drive in and it’s a thriving community. It’s great to see. It’s wonderful.”

Louise Freeman is a former Eagle resident and freelance writer based in Anchorage.

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