Moose hoof Jell-O, root beer and fried chicken topped the cafeteria tables in the Crooked Creek school Thursday as the village celebrated an early Thanksgiving.
The occasion: Nine families plan to move into boxy new homes designed by the Fairbanks nonprofit Cold Climate Housing Research Center over the next several days. Built with thick walls on high ground, the buildings could serve as a blueprint for future Bush housing.
But for several Crooked Creek families, they mean a warm place to stay just as snow begins to dust the mountains south of the Kuskokwim River village.
Just five months ago, the worst spring flooding in memory launched battering ram ice into riverside homes. Water shoved log houses from their foundations and swept through living rooms. About a fourth of occupied houses in the village were destroyed, according to state figures.
Helen Macar, 37, was five months pregnant at the time. She'd just finished cleaning the family's log cabin when the water arrived at the steps of her deck.
Macar grabbed a picture of Jesus and Mary from the wall and headed for higher ground, she said. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen. All we had was what we were wearing."
The flood carried her house 100 feet from its foundation. All told, 14 homes were destroyed, according to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Gov. Sean Parnell declared the flood a state disaster, making roughly $45,000 in individual assistants grants available to each displaced family, said division spokesman Jeremy Zidek.
One family chose to rebuild on its own, while other villagers lived in houses owned by a Bethel-based regional housing authority that rebuilt some of those homes and is replacing others, Zidek said.
For the rest of the families, dozens of volunteers for faith-based relief groups began building nine replacement homes in August.
Samaritan's Purse -- a group led by evangelist Franklin Graham with roots in Alaska and ties to Parnell and Anchorage Baptist Temple Rev. Jerry Prevo -- will have contributed an estimated $675,000 to the project by the time it's complete, said construction manager Jim Trosper.
Other religious groups have made smaller donations. Several of the volunteers on hand Thursday for a potlatch celebrating the new housing were out-of-state builders from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.
Macar toured her one-bedroom home for the first time after the meal.
"Holy cow," she said, carrying her infant son to the kitchen as her children inspected the bedroom. "Look, we have cabinets, you kids."
Macar fell quiet. She felt overwhelmed, she said. "Very thankful. My kids have a house before winter."
WARMTH FOR THE COLD
With metal siding and 14-inch walls filled with a soy-based foam insulation, the new homes dotting Crooked Creek are all the same deep blue. Each stands at least a foot above the village's new high-water mark, resting on gravel beds and raised wooden platforms, builders said.
The housing research center created the design with rapid construction in a remote locale in mind, said Aaron Cooke, an architectural designer for the nonprofit.
The skeleton of each home -- the walls, roof and floor -- are made from trusses that were shipped already assembled to the village.
"The crew in the field is then able to put it up all at once," Cooke said.
Erecting the buildings took maybe half the time of a more traditional stick frame house, said Trosper, the Samaritan's Purse construction manager.
It's unclear how much the homes would have cost to build without volunteer help and donations. The construction material arrived by barge from Bethel. In some cases trusses were flown by helicopter from nearby Donlin Creek Mine.
The 24-foot-by-40-foot design could cost a third less than comparably sized $300,000 homes in the village, estimated Dave Shippey, building and project manager for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.
Researchers and volunteers say the design could be used to build lower-cost homes in other communities in the region.
Helping pay the bills in Crooked Creek was Samaritan's Purse, the Christian humanitarian organization that routinely works in Alaska. The group has an office in Soldotna and lists Prevo as a director on biennial reports.
Samaritan's Purse volunteers previously built houses and other buildings in Hooper Bay after a massive 2006 fire. Graham spoke at then-Gov. Sarah Palin's annual prayer breakfasts and flew Palin to Western Alaska villages to deliver food donations in 2009.
More recently, Parnell spoke at a Samaritan's Purse disaster relief volunteer retreat in June in North Carolina.
Crooked Creek is about 140 miles northeast of Bethel. It's a place where villagers haul water to their homes and honeybuckets stand in for flush toilets. The May 8 ice jam and flooding that swept through town was similar to the Yukon River flooding that decimated the village of Eagle in 2009, said John Madden, director of the state emergency management division.
In fact, governments need to come up with a new classification for that kind of natural disaster, Madden said.
It's more than a flood when so-called "ballistic ice" smacks into homes, he said. "I view it like a glacier advancing on you at 8 mph."
Some families living in the path of the flood lost everything, said Evelyn Thomas, traditional council president. "Myself included."
More than 120 people watched from plastic chairs and basketball court bleachers Thursday as villagers left homeless by the floods thanked volunteers and watched the state hand out awards and commendations for the relief effort. An official for Donlin Gold, the mining company that ferried people to safety in a helicopter the night of the village evacuation, arrived with a surprise: A foot-long, $50,000 aid check to the village council.
Thomas told the crowd she'll finally be able to fix the clinic door and buy a new washing machine for the washeteria. Families returned that night to a tent city near the shore. They plan to move into their new homes as early as this weekend.