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First Alaskan homes completed

Faith-based organizations mark success in rebuilding homes damaged by Spring flooding.

BY ZACHARY HOFFMAN | Eagle, ALASKA | September 19, 2009

On September 11, 2009, a small group of people joined hands and bowed their heads in dedication, not to commemorate the events that took place in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania eight years ago, but to pray after presenting Mary Rose David of Eagle with a new home after spring floods destroyed her old residence.

In David’s town of Eagle, AK, 13 homes were destroyed by severe flooding that resulted from a harsh winter and unusual amounts of river ice followed by a quick thaw. Tanana, Stevens Village and other small villages dotting the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers also sustained major damages due to the rising water and massive ice blocks.

Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), recalled the ceremony, “Mary Rose was overwhelmed and said few words. Often in response she would hold her hands together and raise them to the sky in praise -- as the tall Spruce trees and yellowing Aspens pointed to the sky so she did as well.”

As tears took the place of words for many at the ceremony, this dedication marked the first home finished in Eagle, nine more have also been completed and the others are not far behind. A similar story has been seen in Tanana; 14 of the 21 homes in need of repair have already been handed over.

“We’re almost done,” said Mike Tigchelaar, CRWRC building coordinator in Tanana. “We’re scheduled to be done September 26.”

MDS has its last team finishing up now, after entering into the recovery efforts with some uncertainty eight weeks ago.

“We didn’t know if we had the resources or the people or the ability to build the nine homes,” said Bill McCoy, director of the MDS region that includes Alaska.

In the first week of construction, the materials for the log cabins had not arrived, so MDS volunteers joined Andy Bassich, a local resident, in the construction of a fish wheel. The wheel operated in such a way that salmon entered and became caught in a holding tank.

Fish wheels are allowed along the Yukon and Copper Rivers in Alaska.

Bassich’s fish wheel has been used as a community food supply and was one of the first signs of the community returning to a state of normalcy.

“We had such an outpouring of people who wanted to go that we were able to be selective with the people and get the skills we needed to get the job done quickly,” McCoy said. “That really was a blessing.”

“It’s been a success for us and for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) because in many cases these clients wouldn’t be back in homes if we weren’t able to get them built in the eight-week period,” he said.

“It’s been the first time we’ve been there early enough to use the maximum grant to buy the kits to build the homes,” McCoy said about Alaska. “Using FEMA grant money to build homes speeds up the recovery process.”

Tigchelaar said, “I’ve come to appreciate FEMA and what they do, we’ve had our struggles, but we couldn’t have done this without FEMA and I don’t think FEMA could have done this without us.”

Ramona VanCleve of FEMA said, “I have over 20 years experience in disaster recovery and have been honored to work on this project in my home state.”

“As a lifelong Alaskan, I appreciate the importance of timely assistance,” VanCleve said. “In order to meet the critical needs in a short 'good weather' timeframe. We were fortunate that this was spring flooding and not late fall.”

McCoy and MDS hope that this “special partnership” that has been observed during the recovery in Alaska is a milestone for the future and not a rare unification.

FEMA, the state and volunteer groups are currently reviewing this model to determine all strengths and to improve the process (lessons learned) in case something similar needs to be implemented in the future.

“I firmly believe that this model, using some adaptations, will be critical in future events. It has been extremely successful and all of our many partners should be proud,” said VanCleve.

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