St. Matthew’s Church, Fairbanks, is serving as a staging area for Alaskan villagers evacuated to escape some of the state’s worst flooding in decades.
No deaths or injuries have been reported from the flooding, caused by an unusually warm spring thaw the week before, but the village of Eagle was destroyed May 12. Some villages remain under water, while others are littered with house-size boulders of ice that remained after the river receded. The floodwaters also have become contaminated with toxic chemicals, oil and gasoline that were stored in tanks that ruptured.
So far about 50 evacuees have arrived at the Fairbanks church from Tanana, a village of about 250 located along the Yukon River.
“They’re just coming in now from the village and I’m told there are three more planes coming in from Tanana,” said Hilary Freeman, St. Matthew’s parish administrator. “They brought elders, young mothers, and babies, little ones.”
Telephone lines were down, according to the Rev. David Blanchett, the Diocese of Alaska’s representative to Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a coalition of nonprofit organizations that respond to disasters as part of their overall mission.
“We are waiting for the assessment team to come back so we can get an idea of what’s really happening and what is needed,” Fr. Blanchett said. “Right now we are in the relief stage. We are trying to have an Episcopal presence in the flood areas so that they know we care and also so that we can assess what is needed so we can try to help them in the recovery stage of it.”
Fairbanks is surrounded by a number of smaller communities where unemployment is as high as 90 percent. Many residents subsist on hunting, fishing and gathering. Only nine of nearly 50 such villages are accessible by road year-round; the others can only be reached by air or river from June through mid-September.