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Galena residents look toward summer as Yukon River flood risk seems low

Laurel Andrews
Caribou float down the Yukon River on an ice floe near Eagle during breakup this year. Courtesy Claude Denver / State of Alaska

Nearly a year ago, the Interior community of Galena was submerged in the rising water of the Yukon River that swept through the town, destroying homes and displacing residents. This year, spring breakup is already underway, and residents are breathing a sigh of relief as flooding dangers appear minimal. The community is now looking forward to rebuilding this summer as hundreds of volunteers prepare to cycle through the town to aid reconstruction efforts.

The Interior community was washed away after the Yukon River crested its banks on May 27 last year and flooded the town. Nearly every structure in the city was damaged by the floodwaters 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. State officials called the Yukon River flood -- in which eight communities faced flood damages -- the worst natural disaster in Alaska for decades.

But the risk of Yukon flooding appears far lower this year. Hydrologist Ed Plumb with the National Weather Service River Watch has been flying river for two days, and he was on the ground in Galena on Wednesday.

Spring breakup is “completely different from last year,” he said. Last year, a “dynamic breakup” occurred, during which a large ice front moved downstream, forcing ice to fissure and crack as the front pushed down the river. A cold spring followed by a rapid warmup left ice intact, which then caused a jam about 25 miles downriver from Galena, in turn causing the river to crest its banks and gush into town, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

This year has seen a “thermal breakup” in which multiple areas of the river melted at once, Plumb said. Now, the ice is all “very rotten, thin-looking and weak” and is lingering because water levels are low, so ice isn’t being pushed downstream.

Along the Yukon, from Stevens Village to Kaltag, the water level is so low there are exposed sand bars, Plumb said. Minor flooding in Circle occurred Tuesday, according to the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management's Twitter feed, but the flood warning had expired on Wednesday afternoon.

Because the flood risk appears low in Galena, residents are looking forward. Galena resident Eric Huntington wrote that he was excited for the summer, which will see the return of the Yukon 800 boat race that bypassed Galena last year, as well as the annual baseball tournament. Huntington is busy helping his father construct a new five-sided log cabin after his home was lost to the flood, and Huntington is working on his own property, too.

“At this time, though, I'm more concerned about the hunting and fishing seasons than the reconstruction.” Huntington wrote. “This past winter was difficult on many of us, even with the donated fish and moose meat. It was a financial and emotional drain. Hopefully this year we'll regain our independence, bring back some families and elders that wintered in the cities or other villages.”

About 55 residents stayed outside of the community this winter, Zidek said.

For Jennifer Hildebrand, this summer offers a fresh start. Hildebrand’s house sat submerged in water for six weeks after the flood, and after months of frustrating back-and-forth with FEMA, the community came together to demolish and rebuild her home.

Hildebrand, who moved into a newly-constructed home last month, bubbled with excitement on Wednesday. “I’m so happy to be back in the neighborhood. The kids are happy,” she said. Now she can “hop and skip to work again,” she said.

Her new home was built on the same property, but the three-bedroom house is raised up on pilings around 138 feet above base flood elevation. Her house, constructed with the help of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, is far more energy efficient than her previous home, too, she said.

This winter Hildebrand and her two children lived with her mother for several months, and then in an apartment that was paid for by the state. She’s excited to regain to a sense of normalcy. One of the first days in her new home, she returned in the evening to find 10 kids out on her deck, roasting hot dogs and hanging out. “Oh my God, I was so happy,” she said.

She feels a sense of relief with the risk of flooding so low. But “there’s still like, anxiety,” Hildebrand said, “just knowing the possibilities now.”

Galena Mayor Jon Korta said there was “heightened anxiety for sure coming into breakup this year,” he said, but now, the risks appear to have subsided. The community, state and FEMA have already resumed construction that tapered off over the winter.

For Steve Erickson, whose home was flooded within minutes after water started rushing into town, this summer’s focus will be on building a new home. Materials were heading to Galena via barge on Wednesday, and the pilings would be going into the ground soon, he said. He and his wife Pat Erickson will be rebuilding to six-star energy efficiency. “We might as well do it right if we’re going to do it,” he said.

Speaking from Anchorage, Diemont said that around 250 volunteers will cycle through the community this summer from both the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission and Samaritan’s Purse. The $3.4 million responder’s camp set up last year is being expanded to hold more beds to accommodate the influx.

On the docket this summer are major repairs to 25 homes and construction of eight new homes. Nine homes still need to be demolished, Diemont said. Individual assistance for private residences has totaled roughly $2.3 million, and the city will be reimbursed $3.6 million by the federal and state governments for repairs already made, with more money coming this summer, Diemont said.

The short-term focus is returning displaced residents to their homes. Homes will be elevated out of harm’s way, up past last year’s flood level. A contractor working on the ground in Galena estimates he can elevate 60 homes this summer, Korta said. “That will go a long way toward future flooding events.” 

On Monday, the community was approved for $1.7 million in federal and state hazard mitigation funding to elevate residences. Homes must be raised up at least 136.5 feet above base flood elevation to qualify, according to Zidek.

Another major project is getting the power plant back up to speed. The city will install more efficient generators, and work to improve waste heat lines this summer, Korta said.

Galena still needs to address future evacuation and shelter plans should another emergency occur. “Honestly, we weren’t as prepared as we would like to be. Even a year later, there’s things we need to address in the community,” Korta said. “Sometimes you need an event like this to find out where your gaps are.” 

Meanwhile, the city’s swimming pool was being refilled on Wednesday for the first time since the flood. The pool is a mainstay for youth and adults alike in the community.

Over the long term, the community is seeking to make energy efficiency upgrades on the Galena Interior Learning Academy boarding school and city buildings. “The bottom line is we want to make our community better, we don’t want to put it back the way it was,” Korta said. “Those things take time to do but we believe they’re the right things to do.”

While the timeframe may be longer, it’ll be worth it, he said.