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Cooperative spirit seen in Alaska

Voluntary organizations, governments, are working together to rebuild flood-damaged homes before winter


More than three months after floods tore through villages bordering the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers in Alaska, a unique collaborative effort combining the expertise and resources of faith-based disaster response organizations, the State of Alaska and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is providing aid to the survivors of the disaster.

More than 600 people have filed for FEMA assistance following the May floods.

In response, faith-based organizations are sending hundreds of volunteers and financial support to help rebuild and repair homes before the region’s cold weather sets in this fall.

“If they (flood survivors) spend the next two months rebuilding their own houses, they miss the opportunity to prepare for the nine months of winter ahead,” explained Bill McCoy of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

The true challenge, according to Andy Bassich, the coordinator Eagle Rebuilding Construction Team, is that Eagle is a subsistence community where people use the three summer months to work part-time and gather food by hunting and fishing. Bassich lives near Eagle and was evacuated by helicopter with his 24-sled dogs following a harrowing experience in the May flood which destroyed his home and outbuildings.

“It’s called a flood,” he explained, ”but it looks more like the scene of a tornado. Homes have been pushed 50 feet, some more than a mile from their foundations.”

FEMA has already committed $3.7 million to individual grants and small business loans to the flood survivors. A total of 628 people have registered for assistance, from that 188 people have been approved for housing assistance and another 200 for needs assistance. The majority of the rest are pending approval, according to FEMA officials.

“What we’re doing in places like Eagle is people are ordering the pre-fabricated homes and supplies with federal grant money and FEMA is paying for the delivery transportation,” said Jack Heesch, a public affairs officer for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is coordinating many of the homes that are being rebuilt in Eagle and Stevens Village, while the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) is focusing on Tanana recovery efforts.

Other faith-based disaster response organizations sending volunteer teams and financial aid to help residents rebuild include Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Samaritan’s Purse, United Methodist Committee on Relief, and the United Church of Christ.

To help speed response, MDS is sending about 70 volunteers in shifts of 10 to 15 to aid in rebuilding. Each shift stays for two weeks at a time working 12-hour days in harsh conditions.

The homes are log-cabin kit homes, affectionately referred to as ”Lincoln Log” homes, with limited electrical and plumbing work. Since Alaska is light all day this time of year volunteers are able to take advantage and push towards the finish of each home.

“In most areas (flood survivors) are staying in schools,” said Richard Whetsell president of the Alaska state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). “The work is not going to be done before school starts, so that is another issue we will have to deal with.”

In Tanana, materials that have had to be barged in have also caused delays. ”It’s expensive to barge in materials so FEMA is trying to gather as much material on one barge as possible to limit costs,” said Arnie Gustafson, the construction coordinator for CRWRC.

The first barge arrived in Tanana on July 15, a week late. Volunteers are now waiting for the second barge, which has been held-up by a delay in choosing a furnace for the homes.

“Ten to 13 of the (23) homes are pretty well completed already, with the exception of ductwork,” said Jay DeBoer, CRWRC regional manager. Volunteers cannot install ductwork until a decision has been made on the furnaces.

“Once materials arrive, work goes relatively quickly,” said Gustafson.

“There is a great spirit of cooperation between faith-based volunteers, FEMA and the state,” said Jay DeBoer. ”It’s a great experience seeing that cooperation. Everyone recognizes the urgency; there is no competition. That was what struck me -- everyone working together to get people back on their feet.”

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