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MDS to assist Alaska residents ‘racing to build’ homes after wildfire

7.13. 2020 Written By: Susan Kim for Mennonite Disaster Service

Photo: Homeowners Chrisandra and Ron Musbach (left) consult with their case manager (blue shirt) and Mennonite Disaster Service volunteer Harold Miller (black shirt) on rebuilding their home. Photo provided by MDS

Residents in the small town of Willow, Alaska, who lost their homes in a wildfire in August 2019 are racing to build new dwellings before winter sets in.

Many in the 2,100-person town have scraped together enough funds to build foundations for their new homes. But they now face a shortage of resources and time in building a safe place to live.

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), which repairs and rebuilds homes damaged or destroyed by natural disasters across North America, is sending volunteers from the United States to help them get home.

“The window of opportunity is small and winter is coming,” says Steve Wiest, a regional operations coordinator for MDS. “By mid-September the temperature drops and the snow could begin to fall. If we are going to act, the time is now.”

MDS is recruiting volunteers who can travel to Willow—about 70 miles from Anchorage—to help build five new homes. The project will run from July 13 through Sept. 11.

“We met homeowners trying to get a house built when it was clearly beyond the limits of their health or the skills at their disposal,” says Wiest, who traveled to Willow to assess needs in June, six days after the state was open to travelers. “But still, they took the first steps and got started with little more than a hope that they could get to completion. They do not have enough money to hire someone.”

The disaster did not receive a presidential disaster declaration, so individual assistance was not available.

The Willow project will be one of the first MDS has been able to coordinate amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are several positive trends leading us to feel comfortable starting a project at this time,” says Wiest. Because of the closed border between Canada and the United States, only volunteers from the United States will be able to participate.

“Alaska, because of its geographic isolation, has been able to control access to the state, and infections are a fraction of other states,” Wiest says.

Volunteers will be required to have a COVID-19 test before they leave home and another while on location.

Noting that MDS has instituted guidelines and protocols regarding safe practices during the pandemic, “we feel that we have the proper procedures and people in place to have a successful project that will protect volunteers and the community that we serve,” Wiest says.

Volunteers will be staying at LaDaSa Camp in Willow.

For more information about the Willow project, click here.

To volunteer, click here.

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