GALENA -- Six weeks after spring flood waters devastated a small Interior Alaska town along the Yukon River 275 miles west of Fairbanks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived to help. FEMA's involvement brought money and volunteers to help rebuild the community of Galena after the historic disaster, but along with the aid came major frustrations as well.
As community, state and federal workers hustled to repair damaged homes and infrastructure before the long Interior winter settled in, they scrambled up a steep learning curve in managing a disaster recovery effort in rural Alaska through a web of regulations that has slowed the recovery.
Today, that recovery continues to drag on. Though residents have high praise for the tireless work of recovery personnel who've rotated through Galena, their frustrations remain, and winter grows ever closer.
Worst disaster in decades
State officials are calling the Yukon River flood of May 2013 the worst natural disaster in Alaska for decades. Galena was not the only town affected – eight communities faced flood damages, including Eagle, Fort Yukon, Hughes and Circle – but the destruction to Galena was by far the most extensive.
Nearly every structure in Galena was damaged by the flood waters and massive chunks of ice that smashed into homes, leaving roughly 500 residents displaced and seeking shelter in a community accessible only by air or boat.
Given the remote locale and damage sustained, “this is the most complex disaster that we’ve faced in decades,” said Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Jeremy Zidek. All in all, the costs and scope of damage make the spring flooding along the Yukon the most difficult recovery effort since the Fairbanks flood of 1967, some state officials say.
On June 14, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell requested that the federal government step in to assist with the rebuilding effort by declaring the flood a federal disaster. President Obama obliged on June 25, triggering FEMA to take the lead on coordinating the recovery process in a joint operation with the state. Under the federal disaster declaration, the US government will pick up 75 percent of the tab, and the state will cover the remaining 25 percent.
The federal disaster declaration meant that funds and resources would be available to the afflicted communities -- thus far, $2.9 million in grants to all eight communities and $3.7 million in low-interest recovery loans. Yet along with the influx of money and volunteer help came a deeply-layered federal bureaucracy that presented its own set of challenges.
'If you waited for FEMA, you waited too long'
Residents say the frustrations with federal regulations began as soon as FEMA set foot in the Interior community. In June, the state had conducted preliminary damage assessments of people’s homes. Once FEMA arrived in July, however, the agency had to conduct its own.
The agency has finished its assessment verifying that a federal disaster declaration was warranted. However, in the Interior community, the wait for confirmation meant a major delay in rebuilding.
“It basically added another four weeks before anything could start,” said March Runner, Louden Tribal Council administrator.
Interior Alaska summers are short – usually lasting from mid-May to the end of August -- and during these months, construction work is conducted at a dizzying pace. Once winter hits, the ground freezes, and temperatures drop well below zero. Builders put down their tools until spring.
That fact of life in the North meant that residents had only a few short months to pull the reconstruction efforts together, and they knew it. Any delay to the process meant that homes might not be repaired before winter.
“The weather out here is Arctic -- it doesn’t pay attention to the rules,” said Rand Rosecrans, culinary arts instructor at the Galena Interior Learning Academy.
The people who call Galena home are independent and resourceful, as strong as black spruce trees rooted to the surrounding tundra in spite of the frozen ground beneath. Many locals started rebuilding immediately, in some cases just days after flood waters receded. Those who had not evacuated began ripping soggy insulation from their homes and leaving their car doors open in hopes that the interiors would dry before mold bloomed.
Instead of waiting for aid, many residents racked up credit card debt and sucked their savings dry, with hopes that they would be reimbursed for some of it eventually. For some, insurance money kicked in. Others later received some assistance, either in the form of a FEMA grant of up to $31,900 or a low-interest disaster-recovery loan. Regardless of whether they received outside funding, folks who began the process on their own were able to start rebuilding quickly.
Those who either weren’t willing or weren’t able to jump-start reconstruction, and waited for federal money and supplies to come in, lost weeks of precious time. Even in September, some folks were still waiting.
“If you waited for FEMA, you waited too long,” said Carrie Given, a high school science teacher at the Galena Interior Learning Academy.
Yet once supplies started rolling in, new problems arose.
Mismanagement of supplies
One of the biggest frustrations voiced by residents and volunteers alike is FEMA’s mismanagement of these supply shipments.
“The residents knew exactly what they needed” to begin rebuilding their homes, said city manager Greg Moyer, but supply shipments came in “piece-meal,” preventing work from starting.
For all the communities affected by the disastrous Yukon River flooding, FEMA has shipped more than 320,000 pounds of building materials and has spent $250,000 in materials purchased and shipped for applicants, Inge wrote.
Yet the shipment of supplies has been hindered by “weather delays, miscommunication -- anything you deal with out in the Bush of Alaska, it’s a challenge. It’s probably one of the biggest challenges,” said Karl Edwards, division supervisor for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security.
Complicating the process is the fact that supplies can only be flown or barged in to the affected communities, and there are only so many planes and barges available during the summer. Getting enough supplies in to rebuild an entire community has proven difficult. “We’re stressing that system,” Edwards said.
FEMA-sponsored volunteers also attest to a breakdown of communication between what gets ordered and what shows up on the barges. FEMA flies those volunteers up, houses and feeds them, through a partnership with Americorps and several faith-based volunteer groups, such as the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. The volunteers stay in a $3.4 million “responder camp,” a sophisticated Quonset hut tent-camp on rented Bureau of Land Management property. As of last week, 99 volunteers had cycled through the community, with another 66 scheduled to help rebuild.
Volunteers said the biggest frustration is to arrive at a home to find some parts – such as a kitchen sink – waiting to be installed, but no drywall, which needs to be put up first.
“If you’re going to fly people up here, they need to have supplies,” said Abraham Mcintyre, a volunteer with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.
“It’s not efficient, but we’re still being productive,” he added.
Residents are overflowing with gratitude for the help of the volunteers that have assisted the community, thanks to FEMA. But the issues with supplies are “very frustrating. [FEMA] needs to be coordinating when supplies are here, and when volunteers are here,” March Runner said.
To help fill in the supply-chain gaps, the Galena Bible Church has stepped in. “We knew there would be lots of red tape on lots of levels,” said church coordinator Kim Kopp. As an independent organization, the church can provide supplies without any regulations on who gets what, and when. With about $50,000 in donations, the church has stockpiled building materials that are available to residents as needed. The church also brought in about 180 volunteers, many who were on the ground before FEMA arrived.
FEMA acknowledged some issues with supply management. “When you build a supply chain from scratch you’re bound to have some situations, especially here in Alaska,” spokesperson Victor Igne wrote. But the federal agency believes it has been successful overall. “I think we made it happen.”
Regulations barring volunteers from driving state and FEMA-owned vehicles also hinder the work flow. Transportation is hard to come by in the town. Many residents lost their vehicles in the flooding, and functioning cars are in high demand. Since volunteers aren’t allowed to drive, state and federal workers brought in to conduct other aspects of the recovery have to take time out of their duties to chauffeur.
'God bless them -- they don’t know Alaska'
A common perception on the ground is that the state’s response was swift and timely, but once the federal government arrived, the recovery process slowed to a snail’s pace.
“While sometimes here at the state we are frustrated with the slow pace of progress, progress is being made all the time,” said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Agnes Sweetsir, a member of the Louden Tribal Council, said that the bureaucracy “really slowed down the process and made it very frustrating for everybody.”
While the state has proven to be an excellent resource, “FEMA -- God bless them -- they don’t know Alaska,” Sweetsir said. Residents complain that case workers based out of state don’t understand their situations.
“The case workers have good intentions, but they do not have any background in rural Alaska,” March Runner said. “When they ask, why can’t you drive down (to Anchorage) and sign these forms for me?” that causes a rift between the community and the agency.
Galena resident Jennifer Hildebrand experienced similar frustrations after her home was not labeled a total loss after sitting six weeks in a lake of floodwater, sewage and dangerous chemicals. Her case worker seemed helpless to make any change.
“Local communities might be better off if the state controlled and managed the individual assistance process,” Sweetsir said.
Could the state have gone through the recovery process without federal help? While the state is “certainly capable of taking on that mission,” Zidek said, Alaska “requested as much support as we could because we knew that the need in Galena was going to be great, and we wanted to bring as much resources to bear that we could get.”
FEMA’s individual assistance program is what provides grants and the shipping of materials directly to households. Alaska has its own individual assistance program that is able to pay $14,950 dollars to households suffering at the hands of a natural disaster, an amount increased by Gov. Parnell in 2010 from a mere $5,000. That’s roughly half of the full FEMA payout.
'The system is working'
John Fort works as the division supervisor for FEMA, and has been stationed in Galena five weeks. A contractor based out of Florida, he has been working in disaster management for more than 40 years.
“It’s tough here in Alaska. The remoteness complicates everything,” he said. But while every disaster is different, “the concerns are always the same. You have to deal with it.”
And “we get the job done, every place I’ve been.” He added.
Despite delays, Karl Edwards said progress is being made. “The system is working. The crews come back at the end of the day tired, beat, because they’re doing their volunteer work.”
While local attitudes toward FEMA lean heavily toward the negative, residents are quick to differentiate between FEMA workers and volunteers who are on the ground in Galena, and the overarching federal bureaucracy.
“I defend the people on the ground,” said Kim Kopp, coordinator with Galena Bible church. “They are just as frustrated as we are. The rules made in Washington D.C. are done in such a way to restrict the person on the scene,” she added.
“People on the ground wanted to be helpful,” Carrie Given said. “It wasn’t their fault.”
As of last week, 66 homes eligible for FEMA assistance still needed to be rebuilt. Around 30 homes will need to wait until next summer for repairs. “Unfortunately we have more work than we have time,” Edwards said.
Fifty-two residents will stay in communities outside of Galena for the winter and will receive shelter through the state’s Temporary Housing Grant Program. Some residents staying at the Willow House in Fairbanks will receive FEMA rental assistance.
As summer began to wind down at the end of August, the feds announced that they would not provide funds to any public infrastructure in Old Town, the section of Galena closest to the banks of the Yukon. Old Town homes that were deemed a total loss would also not receive funding, while homes that can be repaired are still eligible for federal funds.
That means that the Louden Tribal Council building, post office and Yukon Inn will need to be moved to receive FEMA assistance. March Runner said that the late timing of the decision angered residents who had already poured their energy into rebuilding in the area.
FEMA contends that the decision was made quickly. “A lot of work went into FEMA’s determination,” Victor Inge wrote. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study of the situation, as did environmental and hazard mitigation groups.
Still, it’s unlikely that folks will move. “I don’t see people leaving that area, because that’s their homes, that’s their land,” Runner said.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com