‘Exceptional’ floods hits AK villages

Faith-based organizations respond to help restore homes, finding food for sled dogs.

BY ZACH HOFFMAN | EAGLE, ALASKA | May 31, 2009


High water along the Yukon River has flooded nearly a dozen small communities like this one.

Flooding is an annual Spring occurrence in Alaska, but the events causing the spring floods beginning in early May this year were anything but usual. “Exceptional” is the word Richard Whetsell, President of Alaska Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (AKVOAD), chose to use.

“There was an exceptionally cold winter, which made the river ice thicker than usual,” he said. “Then an exceptionally warm spring caused the snow and ice to melt over the course of a few days instead of months.”

Slabs of river ice, some the size of small houses, broke free and jammed along the Yukon River and Kuskokwim River causing water to overflow the rivers’ banks and flood into neighboring villages.

According to officials, 10 villages along the Yukon River and four along the Kuskokwim River were affected by the flooding. The Office of the Governor for the state of Alaska said, “Almost 300 buildings and miles of road have been damaged by the spring floods, and hundreds of people are without homes.”

The town of Eagle, along the Yukon River, was hit the hardest; “Sheets of ice damaged all the homes along the river and took part of the town downstream,” said Arlan DeYong of the State Emergency Coordination Center (SECC) and AKVOAD. DeYong said that mass feedings are not necessary in other villages, but in Eagle about 150 people are being given food at the Eagle Community School.

American Red Cross of Alaska has set up the shelter in Eagle and is providing at no cost “a safe place to stay, a hot meal, minor first aid, and a shoulder to lean on,” according to officials.

Faith-based organizations across the state have joined with state disaster organizations to meet needs as the individual villages report them. Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD) has been working through partner organizations to send clergy and food, tarps and other supplies to those most displaced by the flood, according to Devon Wallace.

Adventist Community Services (ACS), Catholic Social Services and the Christian Reform World Relief Committee (CRWRC) are also providing supplies and workers to aid villages in clean up and recovery.

According to Whetsell, there are only three or four more months left to fill needs and provide aid before winter comes again and recovery efforts must be suspended until next year. Recovery from flooding last year was still being handled when the spring floods struck, and when October comes this year recovery efforts for these floods will have to wait until spring as well, he said.

A headquarter has been set up in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the Community Organizations Acting in Disaster (COAD) to be closer to areas that need the most help and coordinate aid, thereby compressing case management to speed up the process of recovery, according to Whetsell.

The most immediate need to the villages of Eagle, Stevens Village, Circle and Tanana is approximately 8,000 pounds of dog food per week due to the large population of sled dogs in that portion of Alaska. According to officials, 10,000 pounds was delivered to these villages May, 25 by way of airplane provided by Samaritan’s Purse and the Civil Air Patrol in association with AKVOAD, the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and private individuals.

Mushers, who travel by dogsled, store fish on drying racks along the river bank, and when water backed into the villages the food stores were washed away, said Shannon Erhart, President of Alaska Dog Mushers Association (ADMA). Blocks of ice 20 feet high have also prevented dog owners from accessing normal fishing grounds to replenish their stores with white fish until the salmon season begins in late June and July.

DeYong said, “Drop points for dog food donations have been set up in the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, or purchases of dog food can be made by telephone to suppliers of dog food and Wal-Mart stores in these cities with instructions to deliver to the drop points.”

Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin officially requested a federal disaster declaration on May 25. “I am very proud of the service that many agencies are providing to the residents of our great state right now,” said Palin. “Through hard work and determination we can rebuild and make our communities better. The next step in a state's rebuilding process after a natural disaster is to request our federal government's assistance.”

In the next few weeks, a Joint Preliminary Damage Assessment (JPDA) team will complete a preliminary damage assessment along the Yukon River and Kuskokwim River. State and Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) officials as part of the JPDA team estimate more than $4.9 million in Public Assistance damages in Eagle with $6.04 million in Alaska. So far they have identified 24 homes as completely destroyed and many more damaged.


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