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Work team adjust lives to rebuild flooded homes
           
 Golden leaves of birch trees were already falling in September in north central Alaska, a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.  Winter can come early.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staff realized time was running out.  

The communities of Galena and Hughes were declared disaster areas because of flooding in June.  The focus of recovery had been on Galena, where dozens of homes were flooded by the Yukon River. 

David Helseth - Alaska flood
David Helseth's hand is at the level of floodwaters.

Hughes, a small village about 100 miles north of Galena on the Koyukuk River, received minor damage in comparison, with only six homes affected.  Galena’s recovery was nearly done, but Hughes had fallen to the bottom of the list.

Nestled beside the Koyukuk River, homes in Hughes flooded in June when that river thawed from a long, bitter winter, damming up water until it overflowed its banks and entered low-lying log homes.  For two days it was high until ice dams broke and the water rushed toward the Yukon River 100 miles to the south. 

FEMA called Josh Baird, director of Disciples Volunteering of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to see if he could find a group of volunteers to fly into this village and work for two weeks.

The work had to be done before October or families would not have livable homes for the winter.

Josh contacted David Bell, director of the Yakama Christian Mission in White Swan.  He had participated with a 2009 work group to help rebuild Eagle, Alaska, after a similar flood. He has 15 years experience of working with volunteer work groups. 

A couple of days later, Dave was sitting in a three-seat plane flying from Fairbanks to Hughes to check the damaged homes.  The village of about 80 was quiet. 

Moose season had just opened and many of the community’s men and women were hunting moose. 

Other community members were in California fighting the Rim Fire. 

With a FEMA representative, Dave spent the morning accessing flood damage to see if a volunteer group could do the work, how much time was needed to complete it, and what sleeping and eating facilities might be available for a volunteer team. 

On Saturday, Sept. 7, Dave returned to White Swan and started calling people he knew to see if they were able to rearrange schedules and be gone for more than two weeks on short notice. 

FEMA wanted to know by Tuesday Sept. 10 who would be going so flight arrangements could be made for everyone to fly on Monday, Sept. 16. 

By Tuesday, Dave had 10 people who were willing and able to go with him.  Seven could leave on Sept. 16 and four more could fly in a week later.  Flight schedules were made and commitments at home were readjusted. 

The team included Katherine Bell, Kate Van Haren and Greg Norman of White Swan; Dick Cowin of Wapato, David Helseth of Yakima, Nancy Johnson of Puyallup, Jim Piper and Nathan Ridenour of Nampa, Idaho, Rod Parrott of Hood River, Ore., and Mike Robinson of Normal, Ill.

The first team flew from Seattle on Sept. 16, spent the night at University Community Presbyterian Church in Fairbanks, and then flew in to Hughes on Sept. 17. 

An AmeriCorps Tribal Civilian Community Corps young-adult team based with the Hoopa Tribe of northern California had been there for more than a week, mucking out water-soaked wood floors and mold-infested floor insulation. 

Dave’s team was to put six houses back together.   Supplies arrived for five of them.  The sixth homeowner had not ordered supplies until a week after they arrived, so five were completed. 

The team was at the mercy of weather, airplanes or people at desks in Anchorage who made decisions over which they had no control.

Alaska Tent
Volunteer team from Yakama Christian Mission helped muck out flooded homes in Hughes, Alaska, before winter.

Miss M’s house was one of the first ones started, because she had a young child and was living in a tent out back. 

As the team worked on her home, they learned her story.  Her mother had died in 2012.  The 20-by-20-foot log cabin in which Miss M has grown up with her siblings was now hers.  Early in 2013, her father was diagnosed with cancer and in September was flown to a hospital in Fairbanks, about 200 miles southeast of Hughes.

As word came that her father might not live through the week, more volunteers were assigned to her house, and her father’s house next door, so they would be available for arriving family. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 25, the tent temporarily sheltering her and her five-year-old collapsed under the weight of heavy wet snow.  That day, her father died.

On Thursday, Sept. 26, her home was finished and ready to move back into, just in time for family and friends to arrive for the funeral.

When word of Miss M’s father’s death came, men, including three from the work group, traveled up the river two miles to dig the grave.  It took parts of two days.  Taking turns, the 15 men dug down through shale rock to the required level.

His body arrived in Hughes on Saturday afternoon with the community gathered at the airport. 

On one side of the plane family and friends greeted one another with hugs and tears as they left the plane. 

On the other side, a large door opened and men in the community lifted the casket, box and large cross from the plane and carried them to the Episcopal Church less than 100 yards away.  

The funeral service was scheduled for Monday noon.  Because of a conference for Episcopal clergy in Fairbanks and the difficulty of flight arrangements, the team learned Monday morning that no priest would be there for the service.  Someone asked Dave if one of the team would officiate.  Nancy Johnson, pastor of First Christian Church in Puyallup, was asked to do the task. 

As the rest of the work crew spent the morning working on houses, Nancy and Dave prepared the service, even though they did not know the person or family, were guests in a village that had different customs and traditions, and were not familiar with the Episcopal liturgy. 

Seventy-five people gathered in the community center that cloudy, cold day to remember the life of one who had lived his whole life in Hughes.  Communion was served with juice and saltine crackers.  

After the service, the body was carried to the river and placed on a boat for the journey up the river two miles.  About 35 people took a boat up the cold gray-steel river and then used ropes to pull themselves up a steep hill.  Young men carried the casket up the hill, not letting it touch the ground.  There were some steps notched into the hillside but snow and wet dirt made uncertain footing. 

After the committal, men filled the grave with the dirt and shale that had been dug out.  Sharing five shovels, each person worked a minute or two and then received a tap on the shoulder.  Another person took the shovel and continued the task. 

While this was happening, women were singing Gospel songs.  Some men joined in. 

The grave was soon filled.  A large cross was anchored into the ground, standing above those working and singing.  Flowers that had been carried up the hill were placed on the grave. 

At 5 p.m., the potlatch took place in the community hall.  The work group joined the community, tasting bear meat, moose meat, tasty soups and stews along with salads and desserts. 

Miss M helped pass out the abundance of food. 

The snow that had fallen five days earlier and flattened her tent was still on the ground.  It will be there for the winter.  The days were growing colder and shorter, but now she was back in her home.  

The team had no idea how their lives would intertwine with those in the village. 

They realized they did more than just repair houses damaged by floodwater.  They were welcomed into the community and invited to share in the remembrance of life in a way that could never have been expected.

One member of the group commented that it was a life changing experience for him, but, then, the group had prayed that God would work through them.

 

See story on Dave Bell’s reflections.




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