Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Yukon River Flood – A Story of Survival

Imagine waking up to rising waters outside of your home. You hear water swooshing and ice crunching. You have little time to get your family and one small bag together. As you get ready to leave your home, you see water coming into your yard. That is what many people and families faced in Galena in the flood.

Kimberly Pilot, her toddler, and her mother-in-law, Ragine Pilot, were evacuated to Anchorage from Galena. Kim’s husband, William, was evacuated the next day. The woman and children and elders were evacuated first. Kim and William’s son, Deston, was visiting relatives at the time of the flood, so he was thankfully safe at that time. Kim is my second cousin.

The Pilot family are temporarily staying in Eagle River. Left-right: Ragine, Laina, Kimberly and William. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
The Pilot family are temporarily staying in Eagle River. Left-right: Ragine, Laina, Kimberly and William. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Here is Kimberly’s story in her own words.

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I am in Eagle River at my husband’s aunt’s home with Mom Ragine, William and Madelaina. Mom, Laina and I were fortunate to get out that night it flooded. I’m so grateful and relieved that we appear to have made it through with no loss of life. That’s nothing less than a miracle for what I witnessed that day.

As someone posted on Facebook, that was Memorial Day. We were concerned with the minor flooding, but that day was just a normal day. I was doing laundry and I had even cleaned up and swept in our bedroom that day. I find it ironic now, considering Mom’s hardwood floors are now destroyed. But we weren’t worried at all. I was watching Mom, because I knew if she’s not panicking I don’t have to.

Then she calmly told me early that afternoon to pack an overnight bag for me and Laina just in case. As I was doing that, we heard that the new road washed out. This was after 3 p.m. and I knew then that it was a situation where no matter what happened I couldn’t stay there with a toddler. I knew that once we left the house, we weren’t coming back for the foreseeable future. Now there is a loud roaring sound I can here as I stand on my porch. My husband informed me that was the sound of the Yukon River filling up the lake behind the house.

Things got serious real fast. By the time I walked out the door and off my porch there was a foot of water to wade through in our yard. I have two overnight type bags that I’ve packed as if I may not have any other supplies for the next two days, because I knew I couldn’t afford to be in a situation with Madelaina stranded. I distributed the weight evenly between the bags and made sure that I could carry everything I had with me by myself if I needed to. Thank God I did that, because that’s precisely what ended up happening.

We drive over to Len’s house across from the Clinic where (by this time there were many small boats) they are evacuating women and children to we don’t even know where, for we don’t know how long. Laina cried the whole boat ride, that boat was tiny and that ride is something I never again in my life want to experience.

The Yukon River is pouring into the community and there are spots where that current was so strong and unpredictable, I was terrified then, honestly. I knew that there was by this time a very fine line between all of us (60 women and children) getting out with our lives and the chance that we would not be so lucky. I was honestly prepared to, well, I actually made peace with my life and my God on that boat ride because I knew if I went in the water at all I wasn’t coming back out.

The current was just so fast and powerful, shook us around like a cork in the ocean. I didn’t have on a life jacket. They gave me one, but I’m standing in a boat five feet wide holding a toddler. How can I have free hands to put it on? Two other small kids were in the boat as well.

This is hard to type now. I was very aware that the life of my child was in my own hands now. The decisions I was making were life and death. She had on a life jacket. We had just bought her one and her Dad pulled it out of its packaging and put it on her as we left the house. The boat ride was only minutes long, but seemed an eternity when you are looking at the Yukon River ice which is at eye level.

It was chaotic, and things were happening so fast. Any person at any point could have fallen in the flood water and they would be swept away before anyone even noticed. So I knew that if it came down to it, my only concern would be ensuring Laina’s safety, and I knew nothing beyond that would even be possible.

“I wasn’t afraid, mind you. I was resolute. You can’t fight the Yukon River, it’s going to do what it wants, and I knew I just had to pray that it could take me, but not my daughter.”

It was unreal to be literally thrown into a tin can on the mighty Yukon with my husband handing my daughter to me along with everything we own now in the world, and I didn’t know when I would see him again. I wanted to cry, believe me, but I knew that wouldn’t benefit Laina so I just kept planning our next steps.

Landing was just the beginning of what we mothers and children were going to face. We were hastily loaded into a bus, it was 80 degrees out and babies were crying. They brought us out onto the tarmac of the airport and just unloaded us and took off. We were there outside for I don’t how long. But it was long enough for our babies to be distressed and overheated. I thought of everything to pack, but I forgot one crucial thing, water. We were trying to find water to make bottles for a baby who never drank formula before because he was breast fed. The mom had no breast milk to feed him. We were so dehydrated. That mistake, honestly, could have been fatal.

It was scary being with this group because we are just women with babies. I only have one, but there was one with two and she was 7 months pregnant. One mom had five of her children and they couldn’t evacuate her with the bag she packed. So she had a toddler and no supplies. I gave her pampers and other things. No one knows what’s going on, and I’m praying so hard for these babies, and for the pregnant women. I knew there could easily be a medical issue that we would have no way to seek help for. They say they are putting us on a plane, then a few hours later they inform us no plane is coming and we are to evacuate to base for the night. Then we hear planes are coming later. It was insane.

You have no idea the sense of relief I felt when we all boarded the plane at midnight and got in the air without any loss of life. Now I only had to worry about all the people staying behind because water was rising so fast. We needed a miracle for every person in Galena to survive this. I knew at any point an elder could have a heart attack in front of us and we would be helpless.

I was reunited with Mom at the dorms after many hours, they separated us again and we met up again. Babies are dog-tired. Moms have no place to change their baby’s diapers. One mom put her baby on a snow machine seat that was on the side of the tarmac to change her. One mom layed her baby down on a blanket on the ground to change him.

Moms were crying at many points as many had seen their homes inundated, some homes were submerged three feet that they witnessed. Some didn’t have a chance to pack a single thing from their home before they had to flee.

I kept hearing in my head “How terrible it will be in those days for nursing mothers and pregnant women.” From Revelation, I think. Indeed it did seem like the whole world was coming to an end. At least the town of Galena, Alaska. It’s gone as we knew it. There is no there there.

I feel better having typed this, because I feel like its off my chest now, and not weighing me down. It’s hard because many times during the day I will get a flashback of the sound of the water rushing in and of teetering in the boat and of wading through water and it, it, well, you can probably imagine.

Leaving William was the hardest part of the day, him trying to kiss his daughter goodbye and reassure her she will be fine. Many women cried separating from their husbands.

William evacuated the next day, he decided to leave just when mom’s house nearly came off its foundation as the river flooded the house. Mom and Dad had said that ‘THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN’, it couldn’t they said. Dad said we were far enough back and high enough to never be in danger even if other parts of Galena may be.

It was surreal witnessing water shooting into the yard and all around us is a flurry of activity, men and women are scrambling parking vehicles, boats on the road which was the highest point. It was hard driving because so many vehicles were along the roads. They cut the power off shortly after 3:00 p.m. I remember, and we left the house at about 5:00 p.m. The word and news we were hearing kept getting worse and worse.

I’m thankful for the safety we all can enjoy now, thanks to God above. It was in His hands, and I knew as I was packing that if I was without Christ, I would never be able to handle this situation. I was so comforted and clear-headed and I knew it was because “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.” That was my mantra.

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Enaa baasee’ to Kim for sharing her story. William went back to Galena to help in the clean-up and recovery efforts. I have faith that Kim, William, Ragine, their family and other Galena residents will be okay and weather through this. However, the whole community needs help to rebuild and it will take a tremendous amount of resources.

Here are a few ways you can help:

Thank you to fellow Alaskans who have wrapped their arms around the Galena community by providing housing, rides, food, clothing, moral support, and more. Thank you also to the people and communities who are taking care of Galena’s dogs and other animals while evacuees are displaced.

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