While we hear about tornadoes in Oklahoma – a tragedy of enormous magnitude – a smaller but equally devastating disaster is taking place up north in the land of the self reliant individual. In Galena, Alaska.
As much news as I consume on a daily basis, I hadn’t heard anything about it, yet 90% of the tiny town has been wiped off the map.
My wife used to tour internationally singing and one of the friends she sang with is Karrie Pavish Anderson. Sunday as we were winding the weekend down she got a text from her friend ‘s mother asking if we’d heard about Galena being flooded?
Galena served as a military base and outpost during World War II. It ceased operations and personnel were pulled when the cold war ended. Its airport is fairly important since you can’t get there by road. Needed services come by air or down the Yukon River since they are 300 miles from the closest city.
And while Galena is small, it’s kind of a big deal.
The public boarding school has strong vocational programs where youth from all over the state can get private pilots licenses, take automotive classes, cosmetology, small engines, carpentry, and culinary arts.
Why does any of this matter?
As Karrie told me what happened, I began to see a sharp contrast between Galena and Katrina. Sure, Galena’s a fraction of the size, but that’s not the point. While we watched the horror stories of New Orleans and the warnings that the residents had to get out, most of them just stayed, waiting on the “government” to come and do something.
As the waters rose, the first complaint was, where’s the government?
When life was lost, it was the government’s fault for not protecting them, for not saving them.
Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that 40% of the people of New Orleans made a conscious decision to live below sea level with the mighty Mississippi River at their doorstep.
Similarly the people of Galena made the decision to live on the banks of the Yukon, but they at least had a plan and began to act on it.
Their town is 90% gone, but their people? No one was killed and there were hardly any injuries. Why? Self Reliance. The first line on the City’s web site, under its list of core values is…
“We accept responsibility for our operational and organizational decisions and actions while delivering cost effective and efficient services with the objective of doing our work right the first time.”
Those are dangerous words. Accept responsibility for their decisions and actions?
Karrie told me this morning, “Every April, we have a flood meeting. Living on a river that is about 1 mile wide in our area means we all pay close attention to river conditions each year. Leaders from the schools, city government, etc. meet and develop a flood plan based on forecasts for the Yukon ice break-up. We learned in April that Galena might have moderate flooding – it’s all educated guessing at that point as to what would happen, but we take flooding seriously.”
Karrie explained the mentality of Galena’s residents: “When one lives so close to nature, it becomes natural to be very aware of one’s surroundings and learn the ways and habits of the land.”
Note to the people living below sea level.
Karrie works part time at the Galena radio station KIYU when she’s not on tour. In May, she began announcing the ice break-up times to villages up river as the information was provided to them by The National Weather Service.
Then she added, “Our elders say 2013 was the worst flood ever. Homes were built at the 100-year flood-plain, but nature decided it would one-up the 100-year flood-plain apparently.
“I spoke with fellow community members and they were adjusting their summer plans according to the possibility of a moderate flood. Adjusting travel plans may not sound like a big deal to most people, but Galena is only accessible by plane in the winter. One can take a very long snow machine ride to Fairbanks, and in the summer, a very long boat ride. To fly to Anchorage from Galena is $885 round trip, so yeah, it’s a big deal to us.
“On Sunday May 26th, the river broke, and as usual, community members flocked to various locations along the banks to watch.”
Kinda like when JoCo residents flock to the middle of the street when tornado sirens sound to see if they can see anything coming.
“It’s such an AMAZING experience to watch the mammoth ice chunks churn down river, to see ice sheets the size of Star Wars command ships. It’s one of my favorite times of year,” Karrie says. “You can stand at the bank and watch the water and ice carve the earth away before your eyes. You can watch the Yukon abduct adult birch and spruce trees from the land.
“Break-up was very late; five more hours later and it would have broken a record. Around the time of break-up it was very hot – 80ºF. We had snowfall on 5/18, so the weather was just crazy. The main factor was a big ice jam down river at a spot known as Bishop Rock. The jam formed not long after the Yukon broke in our area. If the thick river ice begins to break up and move downstream before it has melted into small pieces, it can jam in narrow or shallow portions of river and create a temporary dam that backs up water into villages.
“Sure enough, the waters rose and took over the town while plans laid early were implemented quickly. The dike that the Air Force built after the flood in 1945 protected our public boarding school, which is on the old Air Force base; that and the runway are the only areas in Galena that did not see flooding.
“My sister Kim‘s husband Jason saw it was time to get most of the kids from the neighborhood out if he could. So he and father Ross Tulloch boated out five youth and one mother. Because the road was compromised, the boat couldn’t follow it, so Jason & Ross navigated through water-filled snow machine paths, grass lakes and forests. Swift currents pushed large mounds of ice from the Yukon in the boat’s path. When they could get no farther, they piggybacked their passengers through flood waters to another father with a boat, who then ferried the evacuees to a school bus which was waiting at the dike road to transfer evacuees to the airport. Then Jason and Ross went back to Crow Creek for another load of passengers.”
Planes were brought in by the school district to evacuate over 200 residents. About 12 hours later, the Governor sent an HC-130 to evacuate 32 people and 19 dogs.
Notice who responded first and who got there last?
In the aftermath of the flooding, they have to deal with how to rebuild, but with far different issues than we have down here.
When the flood hit Galena lost power. And three days ago the continued electricity outage led the recovery team to ask residents to collect the meat that’s been spoiling in refrigerators and freezers, with the Incident Management Team led by the Alaska Division of Forestry working on a plan to dispose of the thousands and thousands of pounds of meat.
Why’s that such a big deal?
It attracts bears in really large numbers. So how do they get rid of it? It gets hauled out in a sling by helicopters. Not exactly a Johnson County style problem.
So how does this little town find its way back?
The generosity of people, already, has been amazing.
“Being gone on tour, Kim and I formed a mini command center to start fundraising, contacting government officials, arranging for supplies to be sent to those who chose to stay in Galena,” Karrie says. “I had an idea to start a place for online giving where 100 percent of the money would go to Galena, with no overhead costs.”
“It’s a partnership directed by Galena Bible Church, with input from the city and tribal and school leaders to make sure everyone’s needs are satisfied,” Karrie adds.
Galena will need diesel mechanics, clean-up crews, construction folks and volunteers to help harvest the salmon, berries and moose. The first snow usually comes the end of September and starts to stick in October.
“That’s not a big window for us to rebuild in Galena,” Karrie says. “Usually during the summer and fall we are fishing, gathering logs, picking berries and harvesting moose.
“But we can do this if we get lots of generous donors and volunteers to partner with us. Galena people are hearty folk, who’d rather work hard than take a hand out. But sometimes, Mother Nature has other ideas.”
If you would like to volunteer services or resources, please contact email@example.com or www.akmissionconnection.org/galena-relief/