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Broncos Help Alaska Community Recover From Disaster

Civil engineering student Ashley Husbands ’14 and a local resident respond to the wreckage left by a flood in Galena, Alaska.
Photo: Robert Boscacci ’14

Last summer, five Santa Clara engineering students joined mechanical engineering assistant professor Hohyun Lee and a group of their peers from various disciplines across campus on an immersion trip to Galena, Alaska, organized by business school lecturer Bill Mains. Their objective was to help the small community combat rising fuel prices by determining cost-effective ways of handling their energy needs. Currently relying on diesel fuel to power their electricity, villagers typically pay an exorbitant 67 cents per kilowatt to heat their homes, compared to 10 cents charged to Santa Clara residents. The community, which was formerly home to a U.S. Air Force base, was eager to work with SCU to learn about their energy options.

But upon their arrival, students were met with the news that Galena had just been declared a federal disaster site following a devastating flood. More than half the villagers had been evacuated; those who remained did not know what to ask in the way of federal support. The students immediately set to work helping the locals recover from disaster and providing input on how to rebuild for energy efficiency.

Sam Heath ’14, senior civil engineering student, measures water elevation marks.
Photo: Robert Boscacci ’14

While some students began creating a questionnaire and contacting residents to identify their needs, others took waterline measurements or performed an energy audit. A pamphlet listing recommended replacement appliances was created, and at a presentation to villagers, the students offered information on savings to be had by making small changes such as replacing incandescent lights with LEDs.

"We were fortunate to be there when the community really needed our help," said Lee. "Alaskans are very serious about energy; it's not fiscally responsible to build a power plant just for the summer months when tourists visit, but they can install solar thermal water heaters for tourist cabins, they can replace their washing machines or freezers with models that are highly energy efficient."

For her part, junior mechanical engineering student Kaci McCartan was proud to be a part of the group. "This trip to Alaska was a great way for different disciplines to learn to work together for a similar cause. It was cool to see business students, arts and science students, and engineering students all doing different jobs to help the community. Not only were we asked to use talents learned from our respective majors through surveying, energy auditing, and questionnaire creating, but we were also challenged to use our own personal talents to interact with the community to discover their wants and needs for rebuilding. I learned so much about myself and my passions during this trip, and I am so happy and blessed to have been a part of it."