Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Molissa Bifelt – Rebuilding After the Yukon River Flood

Debris from flooding is gathered for dumping. Photo by Molissa Bifelt
Debris from flooding is gathered for dumping. Photo by Molissa Bifelt

Molissa Bifelt and her partner, David Wightman, live in Galena, which flooded severely in late May. Molissa has taught math in Galena for the past seven years for high school students at the Sidney Huntington School students and Galena Interior Learning Academy (GILA). David is a vocational teacher with carpentry skills. Molissa, David, and David’s son, Koby, were on vacation when Galena flooded.

Read a June 23 story by the Alaska Dispatch: A month after devastating flood, Galena races to rebuild.

On May 27, they kept track of the water levels of the Yukon River from status updates and pictures from friends on Facebook. Molissa said, “I was sitting in the airport in Phoenix praying for the water to recede as I was waiting for my flight.” Although they were out of harms way while Galena flooded, they worried about their black lab, named Coal.

Evan Buchanan, a high school student, was taking care of Coal. Evan canoed to the to Molissa’s house to rescue Coal. Before Evan was evacuated from Galena, he dropped off Coal to the Sidney Huntington School. Many woman, elders and children were evacuated as the town flooded. Molissa and David asked a friend to get Coal to make sure he was fed and cared for.

“Sitting in Fairbanks waiting to hear about our house and town was excruciating. We weren’t able to sleep well thinking about all the ‘what ifs’. We were concerned about the dike breaching and the welfare of our friends that remained behind.” – Molissa Bifelt

Molissa and David's garage flooded. Photo by Molissa Bifelt
Molissa and David’s garage flooded. Photo by Molissa Bifelt

As you may have read, Galena sustained damages/loss of about 90% of its homes and buildings. According to Molissa, there are varying degrees of damage to homes in Galena. She said, “Some people’s homes are completely destroyed or unlivable, while others only got water in their floor insulation.” Molissa and David’s home and separate garage sustained water damage, but there home is structurally sound to be repaired.

David and another teacher were able to return to Galena once waters from the Yukon River receded on June 1st. They worked together to tear out the insulation in the floors, then focused on clearing out the first floor of the homes to get to the wall insulation. In both homes, they had to remove everything on the first floor to dry the place out properly.

Molissa returned to Galena on June 5th to help with the work in their home. Their house is just a shell right now. According to Molissa, the people in Galena are keeping their hopes up so far. She says, “We have a ton of hard workers in this town that are doing everything in their power to get their homes livable and to also focus on the rebuilding of the public facilities. We know as a community that we need to get the infrastructure back up so our families can return for the school year and the upcoming winter.”

Molissa and David's home in Galena. Photo by Molissa Bifelt
Molissa and David’s home in Galena. Photo by Molissa Bifelt

Molissa and David are working hard to rebuild their home by the end of August. They have already purchased material and are currently mudding and taping the house. Once that is complete, they will repaint the rooms. After that, they will repair the flooring, electrical, and finally plumbing. Molissa is grateful that David is a skilled carpenter who has built three homes and two garages in Galena. He knows what he is doing and is capable of getting their house winter ready and livable before school starts.

Molissa noted that their situation is much different than most people in Galena, because they have the resources and skills to rebuild on our own. According to Molissa, there are a lot of families here who need help with the rebuilding process. Molissa says, “There is a sense of urgency for the local residents because we know that the building season is so short and it is hard to get materials into Galena in a timely fashion.” She also says the expense of getting materials in is also very daunting.

Molissa is a teacher who is still under contract, so is going to teach this winter. The community is working to repair Sidney Huntington School, which got water in the insulation and its utilidor was heavily damaged. Located on the base, GILA is fully functional and is currently serving the community of displaced residents and workers. If the Sidney Huntington School is not repaired before school starts, then classes will be relocated to GILA for the winter. Molissa is uncertain of what the school year will look like at this point. The administrators, superintendent and school board are working diligently toward a plan for the school year.

Molissa is impressed with the amount of love and pride she has seen in the community of Galena. She has seen neighbors looking out for each other and are doing their best to salvage their way of life and homes. Molissa says, “We are making the best of this terrible situation and trying to go about this rebuilding process with smiles on our faces and with good humor. There is still a lot to be thankful for despite the situation and severity of the flood damage.”

The Catholic Church was heavily damaged, but they are still carrying on Sunday service at the GILA auditorium. The Bible Church is also carrying on regular service at their church. Molissa says, “It’s nice to know that we are all praying for the same thing, the strength and ability to rebuild our town.”

Molissa and her family in Arizona. Courtesy photo
Molissa and her family in Arizona. Courtesy photo

Molissa and David consider themselves lucky to be at home and working diligently to repair their home. Molissa knows how worried residents are about their homes and most are still displaced to Fairbanks, Anchorage and other places. Molissa says, “We are a family and youth orientated town and it will be nice to get our kids back to Galena. Galena seems so different without our children.” Molissa wants to reassure displaced residents that they are doing their best to get things back together for their return. She is also concerned about elders and families that have no homes. Molissa is looking forward to the first Galena get together as residents return. Koby, who is visiting family, is set to return in early September. They are working hard to have their home fully repaired by then.

Even seeing and hearing stories from the flood, it is hard for me to imagine what the homeowners and residents are going through right now. I am impressed see how Alaskans and others across the US are pulling together to support the community of Galena. Despite the stresses of rebuilding, Molissa and David are fishing when they can and trying to enjoy their summer.

There are still ways to support the Yukon River flood relief efforts.

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