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DELUGED, BUT UNDAUNTED

GALENA, ALASKA - The Gwich’in called the river the Yukon or, in English, "great river."  They knew what they were talking about.

photo of flooding in GalenaAt 1,980 miles, it's our nation's third longest river - not too many miles  behind the Missouri and the Mississippi - flowing north from its headwaters in British Columbia, then turning almost straight west across the interior of Alaska, delivering water from creeks and streams and rivers in a 320,500 square mile area- three times the size of Wyoming  -  to the Bering Sea.

Great, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.  But few who see the Yukon can deny it.  You see its greatness in its beauty, its raw power, its salmon and in what it can do to the communities that make their homes along its shores.

Ask residents of Circle, Ft. Yukon, Gulkana, Hughes, Eagle, Alakanuk, Emmonak, and Galena.   Thanks to the Yukon, they've had a spring they’ll always remember as much as they’d rather forget.

It started in late May.  Winter broke late this year in Interior Alaska with “extended, colder-than-expected” temperatures.  As usual, the ice broke, but when it flowed down the Yukon, melting slowly, ice jams formed, creating dams preventing all the water behind it from making its way to the sea.  The backed-up water flooded virtually every community on the River’s shores.photo of Galena flooding

By most accounts, Galena was hit hardest with many residents saying it was the worst flooding they’d ever seen.  Eleanor Bryant’s home had been built on high ground in the 1970’s to replace a home destroyed in an earlier flood.  It was, said The Anchorage Daily News, “supposed to be beyond the reach of the Yukon.” Not this spring.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. Of course I've heard about other disasters in other parts of the world,” explained a woman who’d flown in to help with the clean-up.  “But just to drive in and see the devastation. I just can't imagine how weary the people who live here must be.” 

300 of Galena’s 470 residents were evacuated to Fairbanks and Anchorage.  According to a survey team dispatched by Governor Sean Parnell, 10 homes were completely destroyed and another 95 made uninhabitable.

Two months later, the ice jam has broken apart, the evacuated families have returned and the recovery has begun.  Following a tour of the communities devastated by the flood Governor Parnell requested, and President Obama issued, a Presidential Declaration of Disaster which put the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead Federal agency in disaster preparedness and recovery, and other Federal agencies into motion.

FEMA says that more than $1 million in awards and more than $1 million in loans have already been approved for households and businesses and, says U.S. Senator Mark Begich, FEMA has agreed to pay 100 percent of the purchase and shipping costs for materials for rebuilding in Circle, Eagle and Galena.

The President’s declaration also has permitted HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to impose a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures of FHA-insured mortgages in the affected area, to provide the State of Alaska with greater flexibility in re-programming HUD funds to recovery, and to offer area homeowners an FHA mortgage product to rebuild badly-damaged homes or to replace it with a new one.

More recently, HUD’s Alaska Office of Native American Programs has awarded a $900,000 “imminent threat” grant to Galena to help residents re-connect to utilities and to cover the costs of repairing their homes.

"The raw power of the Yukon can, in an instant, turn people's lives upside down.  These funds, we hope, will help them get back to right side up," said HUD Northwest Regional Administrator Mary McBride.  "With these and other Federal, state and voluntary resources, residents of Galena will be able to re-connect, rebuild and re-start their lives in the place they want to call home."

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