Max Graham
Construction workers from disaster recovery group Team Rubicon help to convert Steve Virg-In’s Lutak Spur Road garage into a home. Virg-In’s house, which once stood in the foreground on the right, was destroyed by a landslide during the December 2020 disaster.

It has been a year and a half since a landslide on Lutak Spur Road destroyed Steve and Sarah Virg-In’s house, and they are still without a permanent place to stay in town.

But soon that will change.

Thirteen construction workers from Houston, Texas, arrived in Haines last week to help convert the Virg-Ins’ garage into a new home.

“Hope’s the rarest commodity. And hope-givers are the most precious,” said Steve Virg-In. “I’m surrounded by precious.”

The crew is with Team Rubicon, a national disaster recovery group that partnered with Chilkoot Indian Association (CIA) and the Haines Long Term Recovery Group (HLTRG) to provide aid after the December 2020 landslides and flooding.

The Virg-Ins’ house was destroyed by a slurry of debris that came crashing down from the hillside above.

The couple had lived in the home for more than 30 years and hosted people from all over the world, Steve said. They had planned to have guests for much of 2021.

“We’re on the receiving end (now). That’s a whole new experience,” Virg-In said. “I get up every day and look for the opportunity to bless the guys (at Team Rubicon), pray for them, see what we can do to make life here enjoyable.”

Team Rubicon’s crew will be in town for two weeks, until the end of the month, working on the Virg-Ins’ home as well as Lemmie Spradlin’s, which was severely flooded during the December storm that killed two community members, displaced dozens more and caused widespread damage across the borough.

Team Rubicon operations manager Brandon Callahan called the operation “very much an ‘It takes a village’ kind of effort.”

The current project marks the organization’s first mission to Haines –  beyond the work of several local Team Rubicon volunteers, called greyshirts – since “Operation Deishu Dawn” last September, when 11 greyshirts came to town to remove debris and “muck out” homes damaged in December 2020 – Spradlin’s, the Virg-Ins’ and a handful more.

HLTRG coordinator, Sylvia Heinz, who is also a Team Rubicon greyshirt, said partnerships have been key to disaster recovery.

She said more than 20 organizations have contributed money or labor to the rebuild effort. CIA secured a $900,000 grant last year and hired four carpenters and two support staff focused on recovery work.

“The costs are astronomical,” Heinz said. A quote for foundation damage was about $100,000. To rebuild one home has cost about $250,000, she said.

Heinz said immediately after the storm there was some thought that the federal government would step in.

“The reality is that’s not the way disasters work, and certainly not how they work in rural areas,” Heinz said

While Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reimbursing the Haines Borough millions of dollars for infrastructure repairs, the maximum it has paid individual residents for disaster-related damage is $36,000.

Nine Haines residents had major damage to their homes from the December 2020 disaster, and five homes were categorized as destroyed.

Heinz called Team Rubicon a “game-changer” in the recovery effort. The organization has the hands and equipment to make a big recovery push on a short timeline.

In just two weeks the crew will turn the second floor of the Virg-Ins’ garage into a living space, add a bathroom and convert ceiling space into a bedroom. “Steve really teed it up for us to come and do this lifting part,” Callahan said.

In Spradlin’s home, the greyshirts are finishing up wall coverings, applying texture and painting. CIA has already done extensive rebuilding work on that home, at the corner of Young Road and Mathias Avenue, but Team Rubicon is equipped with an industrial sprayer that Callahan said would save days of labor.

While Team Rubicon has experience sending volunteers around the country for immediate disaster response, Callahan said the crew now in Haines – part of a rebuild branch that’s separate from the team that came to Haines last year – is smaller and newer. To date the organization has focused rebuild efforts on Houston, where they’re based.

“This was the first time we really put (a remote rebuild) to the test to see if we could really figure that out,” Callahan said. “This was new for us. … This was us learning how to start doing this.”

About 34% of Haines households reported damage from the December 2020 weather event, and about 18% requested assistance, Heinz said.

HLTRG has worked on 141 cases since the storm.

This spring Heinz helped establish a local Team Rubicon leadership team and grow organization’s presence in Southeast Alaska. There are now seven greyshirts in Haines and more than 70 in Southeast.

Heinz said the organization “offers quite a bit of training that’s relevant to us as Alaskans,” like using chainsaws.

Residents interested in volunteering with Team Rubicon can sign up at