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Galena Residents Struggle To Navigate Assistance Programs

By | October 11, 2013

Photo by Dan Bross, KUAC - Fairbanks.

Jen Hildebrand watches her new house going up. Photo by Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks.

It’s been nearly 4 and a half months since a spring break up flood ravaged Galena. Much progress has been made to repair damaged infrastructure from power and water lines, to roads, and public buildings. Over 50 homes have been fixed or rebuilt, but many others remain in disrepair. Some Galena residents have struggled to navigate a tangle of assistance programs.

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Jen Hildebrand’s home was one of the most photographed in Galena this spring.  Already in rough shape the house sat immersed in a flood formed lake for weeks.

“I always prayed to god for a new house I just didn’t think it would take out the whole town to get it,” she said.

Hildebrand happily watches as a forklift swings trusses into place on her new house. The small three-bedroom designed by the Fairbanks based Cold Climate Housing Research Center sits high atop gravel and steel pilings.

“I’m gonna see that next flood comin’ on that river,” Hildebrand said.

The new house will also be super energy efficient, a village dream home, but Hildebrand, like many Galena residents, had to negotiate a web of bureaucracy and programs to finance it.

“There’s always a catch if your eligible, you gotta do this, you gotta do that, but then you can’t get this,” she said. “Yeah, I had to fight for it, we all did.”

Neighbor Frieda Beasley checks in on the progress, happy for her friend and sad about her own situation.

“It was a frustrating summer; battling with the insurance company, with FEMA and the SBA, the misunderstanding and how well you have to read between the lines, and how frustrating it is to get all those of phone calls of rejection,” she said. “Right at the very first meeting FEMA told us, all of us were going to get $32,000.”

Beasley says income and flood insurance disqualified her and her husband from getting the government payout. They’re using insurance money and a bank loan to rebuild, but complications have delayed the project until next summer, so like many they’re staying in a relative’s home.

“There are people that are couch surfing,” Karl Edwards, who heads up flood recovery for the state, said. “A lot of people prefer to stay with relatives, than be in a shelter or somewhere else, and we’re trying to help them all.”

Edwards acknowledges some people have fallen through the cracks.

“Unfortunately that is true,” he said.

But he points to the success stories, knowing winter is bringing the re-building season to an end.

“We have got some people back into their homes; we do have some homes completed,” Edwards said. “We have about a week left of large teams here in Galena working, so they’re trying to wrap up as much as they can before they leave.”

“And the goal or the hope is that they can at least get shells on houses, so that people can do inside work through the winter.”

Edwards credits numerous volunteer crews from faith based organizations who have helped people rebuild. The state, FEMA, Salvation Army, Americorps and other government and tribal organizations have also provided food, clothing, and temporary housing.

Local teacher Adrianna Hevezi was a renter who lost her place in the flood and is one of 20 or so living at a shelter for the winter.

“I have a job; this is home to me, so why should I move?” she said. “My son is graduating this year, this is his home, his friends are here, so we are trying to stay.”

Hevezi doesn’t blame the government for some people’s struggle to recover from the flood.

“I don’t expect the government to give me anything, so whatever I got, I was thankful,” she said. “You know, it was unfortunate what happened; things happen in life and you just have to be resilient, and do the best you can.”

Hevezi has purchased a heavily damaged home with plans to rebuild it. That kind of self reliance is taken is taken to the extreme in another Galena housing project.

“Absolutely zero help of any sort,” Jake Pograbinsky said.

He is aiding friend Gilbert Huntington, put together a log cabin, a labor intensive endeavor pursued without any government assistance. The locally cut wood shines bright from hours of work using machinery the men cobbled back together after the flood.

“Everything we used was drowned out,” Pograbinsky said. “This forklift was drowned; the mill that we used to mill the logs has drowned.”

“This is why we are both staggering with exhaustion.”

Pograbinksy says he’ll get to fixing up his own place next summer, a plan many Galena residents have not adopted by choice.

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