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Learning from Galena: How can feds improve FEMA's Alaska disaster recovery?

The U.S Homeland Security Department is conducting an audit of FEMA's troubled efforts to rebuild the flood-stricken Interior community of Galena last summer. Officials hope the report will keep future recovery efforts in rural Alaska from being plagued by similar frustrations. Loren Holmes photo

Did the Federal Emergency Management Agency falter in Galena after severe flooding struck the community last summer? Another federal agency -- the Department of Homeland Security -- is auditing FEMA in its mission to help rebuild the flood-stricken Yukon River community in Alaska's Interior.

Residents of Galena have been vocal in their complaints that FEMA burdened recovery efforts with a nonsensical supply chain, layers of bureaucratic red tape, and case workers unfamiliar with rural Alaska after the agency took over recovery efforts in July.

Galena, located off the road system in the heart of Interior Alaska, was unlike disaster sites in the Lower 48, locals said. While residents expressed deep gratitude for FEMA's workers and volunteers, they say rules made in Washington, D.C. tied the hands of those working on the ground.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, heard these complaints during a July visit. “I fully expected to see a lot more of accomplishments on the ground,” she said. Instead, she witnessed mass frustration. Her experience prompted a letter to the U.S. Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General on July 26, communicating what she had seen.

Some of the FEMA reservists were “experiencing a steep learning curve,” Murkowski wrote. “This is unfortunate given that there is little margin of error” in returning residents to their homes before the long winter arrived. She invited the agency to tour the community to see the issues for themselves.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) arrived six weeks later, bringing along Deputy Inspector General Charles K. Edwards, acting as head of the federal office. His report of the visit will analyze if and how the federal agency failed residents, Murkowski said.

While the report will not be released until the end of the year, Murkowski said Thursday that she'd seen some preliminary findings. At the top of the list was dealing with the transportation of materials, working more collaboratively with tribal and local leadership, and recognizing that the lightning-quick building season in Interior Alaska prohibits much construction work past September.

Eight communities along the Yukon received disaster declarations, which qualifies them for federal recovery assistance.

Costs for the recovery are estimated at $70 million thus far, with some of that money slated for work to be completed next spring, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. FEMA will pay 75 percent of most costs, and the state will pay for the rest, Zidek said. 

In 2014, an OIG audit -- the second phase of the report -- will figure out where that money went.

Tribal council member and community leader Agnes Sweetsir expressed hope that the report would bring results. She hopes the community’s “pains and sufferings” will teach valuable lessons for the next disaster recovery process.

Galena City Manager Greg Moyer agreed that efficiency would be key for future federal recovery efforts in his area. “It’s not about the event or the disaster -- it’s how they operate,” he said.

Abe McIntyre, director of Bahamas Methodist Habitat, spent two weeks rebuilding homes in Galena. He declined to comment on whether a report was necessary -- but he confirmed that the process needed work.

“From a volunteer’s perspective it was really horrendous,” he said. When he asked why the supply chain was so faulty, “(FEMA workers) said this thing was messed up in June,” and they were just trying to get through the rest of the summer -- they’d get the process cleaned up come spring.

The report will hopefully offer suggestions for what to change once spring arrives, the snow melts and the building season begins again. For Sen. Murkowski, the report will allow her to see whether legislation regarding how FEMA operates is necessary. Because disasters will occur in Alaska again, she said, and FEMA needs to be “prepared to deal with the complexities” of life in the Last Frontier.

FEMA’s Coordinating Officer for Alaska, Dolph Diemont, said in a written statement that the agency looks forward to seeing the deputy inspector general’s observations.

Correction: This article originally stated that $70 million had been spent on recovery efforts through autumn. It has been corrected to state that the $70 million includes funding for the some spring projects.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com and follow her on Twitter at @Laurel_Andrews