Similar flood disasters, different responses: Villages in Alaska and Russia learn from each other

Floods that affected sub-Arctic villages on both sides of the Bering Strait in 2013 gave researchers in Russia and Alaska an unusual opportunity to compare disaster relief practices across the border.

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Massive flooding devastated the Alaska community of Galena in 2013. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

In the Arctic spring of 2013, river communities on either side of the Bering Strait – Alaska’s Galena on the Yukon River and Russia’s Edeytsy on the Lena River — were devastated by similar ice-jam foods that occurred within a week of each other. Rapid melt of the rivers sent torrents of water and large ice floes that damaged or destroyed most of the houses and public infrastructure and forced evacuation of residents.

Now, after sessions of cross-boundary consultation, site visits and joint studies, experts have come up with ideas about what Alaskans and Russians can learn from each other about how to prepare for and respond to future floods from two of the Arctic’s major rivers.

A study group of a dozen residents, local officials, scientists and emergency-management experts — half from Russia and half from Alaska — has completed its examination of the nearly simultaneous flood disasters and responses to them. The project, with findings in a study published in the journal Geosciences, included a survey of 32 families from Galena and 60 families in Edeytsy that found some consensus: Conditions that lead to ice-jam floods should be managed, and better long-term planning is needed to reduce community vulnerability.

Historically, spring flooding caused by ice jams accumulating in the melt season has been a frequent problem in Galena and Edeytsy. Nonetheless, the research team found, flood preparation and response in the Arctic is focused instead on large communities and on coastal sites, and river communities get overlooked. There has also been a consistent pattern, in both Galena and Edeytsy, of rebuilding homes and other structures on sites that have flooded in the past, the group found.

“I think the biggest lesson we learned was that people have to remain aware of the hazards,” said John Eichelberger of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, one of the team members.

That means taking precautions well before flood seasons start, he said. “Government agencies need to start talking about and talking to people in vulnerable communities by midwinter, and monitoring ice conditions and so on,” he said.

The two communities have much in common. Both are indigenous; Galena is largely Athabascan, and Edeytsy is largely Sakha.

But there are important differences that resulted in different disaster responses, the study group found.

Edeysty, with 1,261 people, has a population that is nearly three times that of Galena. Edeytsy is accessible by road, and it is only 35 kilometers from a larger population center of Namtsy and 60 kilometers from Yakutsk, the capital of Siberia’s sprawling Yakutia Republic. Galena lacks outside road access, and it is 270 miles west of Fairbanks, the nearest large community. Getting between Fairbanks and Galena generally requires air travel.

In Yakutia, government officials mobilize machinery and crews to blast river ice to break it up more quickly during the melt season. That mechanical approach, which is not attempted in Alaska, aims to lessen risks of ice-jam floods. If done improperly, blasting ice can exacerbate flooding, the study noted. Still, the precautionary efforts used in Russia might offer valuable lessons to Alaska emergency managers, the study said.

Edeysty has another advantage over Galena and other remote Alaska villages vulnerable to flooding and natural disasters, Eichelberger said. The Russian city uses natural gas, not liquid diesel or fuel oil. “That’s a wonderful way to heat homes, and you don’t get fuel spills,” he said.

In Galena, spills of fuel and other hazardous chemicals turned out to be big problems. The contamination had to be contained and cleaned up to make the village habitable again.

Edeytsy did have one big disadvantage, Eichelberger said. Residents own lots of cattle – tough animals that can stay outdoors even in winter but that cannot be easily rounded up during disasters. In past floods, Edeytsy residents have lost thousands of their cattle; the villagers have learned to move cattle to high ground before river breakup, he said.

And Alaska emergency managers have one advantage over their Russian counterparts, Eichelberger said: superior satellite remote sensing technology that could be expanded if government agencies provide the funding.

Overall, Edeysty residents were more satisfied with the government’s response to the 2013 flood disaster, according to the survey conducted by the Alaska-Russia study group. The Galena households gave low marks to agencies across the board.

Many Galena families were displaced by the flooding for long periods. Some spent a full year in Fairbanks, enrolling their children in Fairbanks schools while they waited for repairs to be completed in Galena.

Exactly why the Edeytsy residents were happier with the emergency response could be a complicated question, Eichelberger said. It is possible that Americans and Alaskans feel freer to criticize their government, he said. But it was also apparent that Edeytsy flood response was speedier.

For Galena — as with all U.S. natural disasters — there is a formulaic response process that starts with a local declaration, then moves to state action and then finally to a federal disaster declaration and disbursement of aid money, Eichelberger said. In Galena’s case, “that whole process took a long time,” he said. By the time the hurdles were cleared, “half the short summer was gone. That’s the building season,” meaning the rebuilding got started late, he said.

Alaska and Russia face the same types of natural disasters — earthquakes, floods, wildfires and volcanic eruptions — and an important lesson learned in the joint project was that isolated communities can better advocate for themselves when they work together, Eichelberger said. People from interior Alaska and Yakutia have a history of working together, he noted. Fairbanks and Yakutsk were important aircraft stops during the World War II Lend-Lease program, and they are now designated sister cities.

The Galena-Edeytsy project was, in some ways, an outgrowth of that relationship and “a really nice thing,” Eichelberger said. But he fears opportunities for such cooperation have slipped away.

“Relations have gotten so bad between the two countries. It couldn’t be replicated now,” he said.