Villagers working together to reconstruct destroyed building

Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2002

SLEETMUTE (AP) -- A wooden staircase leading to a pile of twisted metal and charred oil drums is all that remains of the village's multiplex building, destroyed by an electrical fire on Dec. 20.

With it went the health clinic, laundromat, community hall, village public safety office, traditional and village council offices, and cable television transmitter.

''It is a shame it takes something like this to bring people together,'' said tribal administrator Pete Mellick. ''It is like after somebody dies and the family begins to gather.''

State troopers estimated the damage to be at least $750,000, but the community is slowly starting to recover.

Community representatives are filing for disaster aid and filing for grants with the state Division of Emergency Services.

They set up a makeshift clinic in the Jack Ignatti Sr. school while students were on Christmas vacation. Community health aid Barbara Effemka contacted the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. to request new equipment to replace what was lost in the fire. When a chartered plane crammed full of hypodermic needles, medicine, stethoscopes, an examination table and a blood pressure machine arrived on the airstrip within a week of the fire, Effemka was impressed.

She was even more impressed when she turned around and saw seven members of her community sitting on their snowmachines ready to help set up a new clinic.

''I thought me and the other health aid would be delivering all this stuff by ourselves, Effemka said, ''but when everyone showed up my heart just felt so good.''

Though Effemka is comfortable in the school, conditions are less than ideal. Noisy furnaces make it difficult to hear patients' heartbeats. She has only a tiny square of window above the stacked cardboard boxes of supplies, and she feels closed in.

The support from the outside is heartening, Pete Mellick said. He has fielded calls from the governor's office, as well as from Bethel-based organizations.

''I can't tell you the amount of people that have been calling us, asking what they can do,'' Mellick said. ''It makes you feel pretty good.''

Members of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., Association of Village Council Presidents, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development worked together to help the traditional council find a house for the clinic when school resumed.

The internal support is even stronger. Former health aide Jenny Zaukar had been planning to move to Anchorage before the fire. She is moving now so that the clinic can be moved into her four-bedroom house, Effemka said. She will continue to pay the rent on the house, said Tom Hildredth of AVCP.

''I can't wait to get out there and get started,'' Effemka said.

Representatives of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. are applying for a grant for a new clinic, according to Gene Peltola, chief executive officer of the Bethel-based health organization. They anticipate being able to start construction in the spring.

Effemka hopes to secure a new computer by then. Through the Internet, the computer was one of the main ways she learned what was going on with the community health aides program.

Residents miss keeping in touch with the outside world through the television set. The transmitter and receiver for the villages satellite dish were destroyed in the fire. Replacement could cost around $20,000.

''In case of a war or some emergency we have to have a way of knowing what is going on,'' Nick Mellick said.

For now, people are relying on traditional ways of keeping connected. They listen to the news on the radio and pass the news along to their neighbors.

And they're remembering how to wash their clothes by hand, which is especially trying for those living in homes without running water.

Exenia Daukar, 58, hauls water from the pump house a half mile away from her home three times a week and uses a scrub board and detergent to wash her family's clothes. The work aggravates her arthritis, and she hates scrubbing socks. But the work keeps her strong, she said.

''I heard people say in the future were going to go back to the way it was in the old days,'' Daukar said. ''Maybe this is good practice.''

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