FAIRBANKS — At the heart of the Galena evacuee community this week is a computer in the lobby of the Fairbanks Willow House, the former Comfort Inn on South Cushman Street that’s informally become known as the Galena Hotel.
The computer was logged in Thursday afternoon to the Facebook group “Yukon River Rescue,” where evacuees from the community took turns looking at the hundreds of photos of their inundated community.
Flora Jean Keogh, whose home is close to the bank of the Yukon River, was looking at a series of three aerial photos with her husband, Claude Keogh, when she began to quietly cry.
“Did it hit you? It just hit you didn’t it?” said Loretta Nollner, who’s also a Galena evacuee and has been volunteering at Willow House. Nollner’s eyes were also moist as she hugged Flora Jean.
The Tanana Chiefs Conference estimates that 173 Galena residents have come to Fairbanks since flooding began Sunday in the Yukon River hub community. Ice and water from the river damaged nearly every structure that was not behind a levee around the airfield in the town of about 450 people.
In Fairbanks, many of the evacuees stay at the 39 rooms in the Willow House, a facility operated by the Tanana Chiefs Conference tribal consortium that was opened this year as a temporary home for village residents traveling to Fairbanks to receive medical care.
The current residents of Willow House shared stories of near misses from the last few days Thursday. Many received rides in boats to reach the airport after their homes became islands surrounded by the rising water. Elders described the flood as worse than major floods reported in 1945 and 1971.
There have not been any reports of injuries, but it was difficult to account for everyone in the first few hours because the community lost most of its cellphone coverage. Most evacuees came to Fairbanks, but some went to Anchorage or the village of Ruby, which is a shorter flight from Galena than to Fairbanks.
In addition to looking at photos, Nollner worked on a list of supplies needed by Willow House residents. They’re in the process of looking for a school gymnasium that might work as a storehouse for clothes and other essentials donated to evacuees, she told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
“I don’t care how rich you were in Galena,” Nollner said. “Here you haven’t got anything.”
Food comes to Willow House from the kitchens of local volunteers. Barbara Lee Simon, an Ester resident who is originally from Allakaket, has been volunteering in a makeshift dining room, a suite on the second floor that has a microwave but no stove or refrigerator. Simon said she’s on a limited budget herself but was able to bring a bowl of hard-boiled eggs to share with evacuees. Others brought chicken, salad and bread for lunch Thursday. She’s been helping because she remembers when her community flooded.
“People are so busy they don’t realize their stomachs are rumbling,” she said.
Terrence Carlo, a custodian at the Galena school, is staying at the Willow House with his 12-year-old son. Sitting outside on the porch Thursday afternoon, he said he’s concerned about the many young people who are stuck at Willow House until the village becomes habitable again. His mission on Thursday was to get a nearby jungle gym opened up to children from the Willow House.
The Yukon River was expected to return to it banks but it will take time to make the village habitable again. Carlo said he plans to join one of the first waves of adults to return to Galena and begin the reconstruction. His son will go to Anchorage while the village is being rebuilt, a decision his son is not happy about, Carlo said.
Still, Carlo said, his son is doing better than most young people because he has other family in Fairbanks.
Also, he got to see the movie “Iron Man 3” on Thursday, months before he would have been able to see it in Galena. His son is also learning about people, he said.
“My son is seeing how a community comes together when a tragedy happens,” he said.