Alaska News

Galena counts its losses from Yukon River flooding

GALENA -- Charlie Green, a carpenter, lost four pickups, four snowmachines and a forklift.

The Reitan kids lost their Nintendo Wii and their family home.

Martin Nelson lost his dog.

A long-haired, black lab named Rollie, she survived the first surge of river water only to die hours later on a levee, surrounded by the rising Yukon River. She was 14 years old and terrified.

The dog drank contaminated floodwater and struggled to breathe before collapsing, Nelson said. She's now buried beside his flooded house. Badly damaged by water, it looks like he'll lose that too, he said.

It's been three weeks since the worst flooding here in memory, and residents are slowly returning to find the riverside village mudcaked and quiet, their freezers empty and their lives in upheaval. State officials, villagers and recovery workers are now trying to judge the scope of a loss that is in some ways incalculable.

One thing is clear. Everyone lost something.


"The hardest part is not having the kids here," said math teacher Molissa Bifelt, who lost a cache of blueberries and cranberries, moose skin for sewing and the 3-year-old sourdough starter she used to make pancakes every Sunday.

The elders and children left first, evacuated by missionary and military planes. An estimated 300 of the Galena's 470 residents were eventually airlifted to Fairbanks, Anchorage and elsewhere. As of last week, most are still gone, and it's not clear when they will be able return for good.

More than half of Galena's roughly 190 occupied dwellings are uninhabitable, according to the state. The state emergency services division on Friday estimated it will cost nearly $6 million to rebuild public roads, government buildings and power lines.

Some residents came back for the first time last week to get a look at the damage. But many residents, including kids, may not return for several months because of safety concerns and the lack of housing.

It's too early to put a price tag on the damage to private homes, a state spokesman said. The dozens of Galena residents who stayed through the floods, and those now flying back to look at the damage, say it will take tens of thousands of dollars to fix the average house. Others are beyond repair, residents say.

To get an idea of what many people here are dealing with, one resident said, look around your house and imagine everything below waist level has been destroyed or vanished.

Green, the builder, lost tools and chain saws caked in two inches of cement-like silt. Floodwater warped and hardened a black wolf pelt he was saving for a memorial potlatch. His wife lost her garden of potatoes, carrots and beets.

Most villagers lost running water and flush toilets.

Workers were assembling 20 portable toilets to deliver across town on Friday, said Terry Solomon, spokeswoman for the state incident command in the village. "We joke about having people use the bathroom before they get on a plane to come here."

Big game guide Gilbert Huntington, 56, lost books. Forty years worth, stacked in a log home he and his wife built at the edge of the river.

"I think three of four copies of 'Shadows on the Koyukuk,' that my dad (Sidney Huntington) signed," Gilbert said. "A couple copies of 'On the Edge of Nowhere,' that uncle Jimmy wrote."

Huntington expanded the house four times as his family grew. Cavities in the drywall now reveal the original logs where Gilbert's son, wearing a white, hooded hazmat suit, tore at the walls with a crowbar.

Heavy equipment rumbled in the distance. A forklift heaved a trailer on the back of a flatbed truck and workers waded into the muck, tugging at willow and cottonwood trees flattened by river ice.

Martin Nelson, a laborer, said he built a boat ramp last year so his dog, Rollie, could tag along with the family on fishing trips, or when it was time to rope floating trees for firewood. The dog belonged to his daughter Jaiden, he said. She was the same age as Rollie, who greeted her every day when she came home from school.

Jaiden, now evacuated to Fairbanks, cried when she asked about the dog over the phone.

"I'm kind of glad she's not here to see the rest of this devastation," Nelson said.

Established in 1918 near a Koyukon Athabascan fish camp, Galena is one of the larger Yukon River villages. The Air Force built a base and runway here in the 1950s, creating a town within the town. A wide levee protects the Cold War-era old government buildings, trooper housing and graying warehouses on the former military base.


Every spring, people living along the Yukon -- a source of transportation, salmon and firewood -- expect the water to rise during breakup. Galena saw massive flooding in 1971, prompting new construction on higher ground in the village's "New Town," east of the airport. But no one can remember a year like this, when the river swamped houses above the 100-year flood plain within a matter of hours and residents scrambled to put elders and families on boats, dodging icebergs on their way to the levee.

Raven Mustafoski, 21, lost a necklace that belonged to her late father. She came home for the first time last week to find the living room couch had floated into a bedroom.

Jon Stam, 64, lost "Seinfield" and "Sanford & Sons" DVDs but not the Jon Van Zyle print he won for finishing the 1982 Iditarod. He used a jack to lift his Mazda pickup and jam plywood beneath to wheels, to avoid losing the truck.

The village of 470 people lost a combined 17 tons or more of meat following a days-long power outage, said Solomon, spokeswoman for the state emergency team in Galena..

Josephine Malemute lost family photos.

Creedance Clearwater Revival's "Midnight Special" chirped from her iPhone speakers as she yanked at insulation from beneath her family home in Old Town. The house belonged to her late mother, she said. It stands high on stilts, but water still poured two feet above the floorboards.

"It doesn't take long for stuff to start rotting," said Malemute, who lives in Fairbanks but sometimes stays at the Galena home. "That's why I didn't wait for FEMA to say, 'OK, you can go back."

Malemute tried to save the pictures first, she said. She lost many of the old Polaroids, one-of-a-kind family photos dissolving, unrecognizable, into ash-gray spiderwebs.


Alex Reitan lost a three-wheeler. It floated away on those big inflatable tires.

Erica Cleaver lost her birthday gift, a new refrigerator. She and her husband had just finished a $40,000 remodel when the flood swept through the first floor, destroying all their furniture and floating the couple's nearby bed-and-breakfast 10 feet from its foundation.

Rebuilding here, 275 miles west of Fairbanks, is no simple matter, she said. There is no Home Depot. No roads to the village. Supplies, including sheetrock and lumber, arrives by plane or barge. Residents pay by the pound.

"To get a couch out here is $400 just in shipping," she said.

School superintendent Chris Reitan said his wife has been asking if he can find her diamond rings.

"We lost all those, I think."

The Reitan house sits a quarter mile from the city school, roof sagging, as if the flood broke its spine. Chris plans to rent a home for his family in Fairbanks and commute by plane, he said.

Other houses that used to stand on pilings floated off their foundations, or were smashed by ice and sit on piles of splintered debris as if they fell from the sky. The town has the look of a massive garage sale. Piles of clothing, books and kitchenware peppered the neighborhoods. Desk chairs circled office buildings and parkas and pelts hung drying on clotheslines.

Few houses were as close to the river as Gilbert Huntington's. On Wednesday, the water was still within 50 feet of the house, the river swollen by snowmelt in Canada. A barrel-sized slab of river ice melted in the driveway -- Plip! Plip! Plip! -- a few yards from a pancaked snowmachine.

Huntington watched the Yukon. He pointed out a beaver. It was looking for a new home, he said.

Huntington stayed in Galena through the flooding and spent the first week volunteering in the village, he said. When he turned his attention to his own home he looked in the flooded garage. There, under a block of ice, he found a missing hunting rifle.

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Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email