State hopes to begin flying Galena flood evacuees home next week

khopkins@adn.comJune 6, 2013 

Madelaina Pilot will turn 2 years old Friday more than 500 miles from home.

Her mother, Kimberly, had planned to celebrate the toddler's birthday with neighbors and friends from church at the family's house in Galena.

"Now I think, 'When am I ever going to go to church with these people again?' " she said. "When is our community going to be a community again?"

The Pilots are among about 300 people who fled the Yukon River town when the worst flood in memory swallowed Galena last week. Kimberly and Madelaina escaped to Anchorage with an overnight bag stuffed with DVDs and books -- "Curious George," "The Bible for Girls" -- and bought clothes at Value Village.

The pair joined more than 20 fellow flood refugees Thursday at Red Cross offices in downtown Anchorage for an update on the evacuation and repairs in the village.

State officials told the group that evacuees, some of whom have lost their homes and nearly all their belongings, can start applying for tens of thousands of dollars in state disaster relief aid on Monday.

The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management sent workers to the village Thursday to began cataloging the property damage, a spokesman said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is doing the same, which could unlock additional federal money.

An estimated 180 homes have been damaged in the flooding, said Michael O'Hare, deputy director for the state's Emergency Management Division. Some will require light repairs, he said. Some are destroyed.

The number of inhabitable homes won't be known until the damage assessment is complete, the division says.

The state plans to begin flying evacuees home as early as next week under a plan now being developed with village leaders. It may be weeks or months before all families have returned, however, with the Galena mayor and tribal chief warning that the community is not yet safe for children.

"Galena is a hazardous place at this time due to diesel, sewage and ice damage. ... If you are from a surrounding village, there is no infrastructure to support your visit," Chief Fred Huntington and Mayor Russell Sweetsir said in a statement distributed by the Tanana Chiefs Council.

"Please ask folks to be patient and not come home too fast," they wrote.

Population estimates for Galena range from 400 to 500, making the widespread flooding a large-scale disaster for the Division of Emergency Management, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard.

A division spokesman estimated 280 to 300 people evacuated after major flooding began May 27. Many are in Fairbanks, staying at makeshift church shelters arranged by the Red Cross or at a hotel owned by the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Galena Schools Superintendent Chris Reitan estimated Thursday that only about 30 people had returned to the village so far, including essential employees requested by the city and the school district.

Residents whose homes were damaged in the flooding may be eligible for individual family grants of up to $15,950 as well as temporary housing assistance.

The housing assistance can be used to pay for repairs of owner-occupied homes and for rent, including up to 18 months of rent for displaced homeowners, said Tony Luiken, a division spokesman.

The pace at which people return to the village will be determined by the community, Katkus said: "We're not going to rush anybody back, we're not going to prohibit anybody (from going back)."

Kimberly Pilot's husband works for a fuel distributor in the village and has already gone home, she said. The only thing preventing the family's house from floating from its foundation was the thread of power lines and plumbing, he told her.

Pilot said she doesn't expect the village to be safe for her daughter or 9-year-old son for months. She'll likely have to find temporary housing in Anchorage or elsewhere, she said.

"I don't have any illusion about how damaged Galena is," she said. "Its power lines are down. Houses are off their foundations. We had four cords of wood that flooded away."

Pilot rode in a skiff to the airport the night the flooding began. She had no life jacket as the boat dodged debris.

"I knew that any minor slip-up could result in loss of life," she said. As she talked, daughter Madelaina charged across the floor, then grew fussy, ready for a nap. Pilot lifted the girl to her lap.

"If I went in the water, I wasn't coming back," she said. "The Yukon river doesn't give you a second chance."



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