With dwellings uninhabitable, Galena residents wait to go home

khopkins@adn.comJune 10, 2013 

FAIRBANKS -- The population of Little G-Town is 80 souls, give or take.

A green, two-story hotel near the Richardson Highway, the building houses Alaska's largest grouping of Yukon River flood refugees. The tenants are Galena villagers who fled their homes in boats on Memorial Day weekend during the worst surge any elder can remember.

Among the guests: Theresa Burley, 57, who survived three major floods in the village. None were like this, she said. The last time she saw her house, as she flew away in a rescue plane, floodwater lapped at the windows.

Burley sat outside the hotel Monday tapping a cigarette. A dented sedan pulled into the parking lot. "Chinese!" shouted the delivery driver.

There's little to do beside eat and smoke, Burley explained. Everyone is waiting for FEMA, or the state, or someone to tell them when it's safe to return. "I'm just anxious to go home and see what my house looks like," she said.

She might not like what she finds.

About 180 houses were damaged to some degree in the flood, according to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. A preliminary damage assessment, completed over the weekend, found that 15 had been destroyed and 90 more are uninhabitable.

Galena dog musher and big game guide Gilbert Huntington saw the worst of it as one of the dozens of residents who refused to leave during the flood.

The houses have been moldering for two weeks, he said. They need to have insulation removed and to dry out. Some that could have been salvaged immediately after the flooding subsided may now be beyond repair, he believes.

"Probably within a week or two, the best thing for those homes is going to be to burn them down," Huntington said.

The musher was in Fairbanks Monday for the first time since the flood, seeking a loan to build a cabin for his family. If he's lucky, he'll have a place to live by Thanksgiving, he said.

City and tribal leaders say the village remains too dangerous for children. Contaminants might have seeped from motor oil drums, floating cars, upended fuel tanks and other hazards, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Huntington's wife, Margaret, may not be able to return home for good for months.

For now she is staying in the Tanana Chiefs Conference hotel, off of Cushman Street. Called Willow House, it's meant to provide temporary housing for people visiting the social service agency for medical treatment in Fairbanks.

Galena residents call it Galenaville, Burley said. Someone wrote "Little G-Town" in chalk in the parking lot, where an SUV pulled up Monday afternoon and two large men unloaded bulging donation boxes.

If the village had never flooded, Burley would be back in Galena, working at the school, she said. Others said they would be preparing nets for salmon season.

Eleanor Bryant, 73, and Herb DeSacia, 68, would have been gardening. The couple is staying at the hotel with their Pomeranian, Muffin, and said they're grateful for the help. "This place is tremendous," Bryant said as a worker arrived with plates of broccoli and pasta and "Inside Edition" chattered on the TV.

Still, she said, the village kids are getting antsy. "Every one of the rooms is full. Some of the women here have five or six children."

Galena's estimated population is 484. It's unclear how many were in town when the flood hit on May 27, but the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management estimates 300 were evacuated.

Bryant suspects her house is among those that are now a total loss. Her son has been back to the village and told her it appeared contaminated by sewage and fuel, she said.

That it could flood at all was a shock. The state housing authority built the home in the 1970s, Bryant said, after her previous house was rocked on its foundation during another big flood.

The new home, on higher ground, was supposed to be beyond the reach of the Yukon.

"I never thought I'd see the day," she said.




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