Yukon flood destroys Eagle Village, floods Eagle

RIVERS RISE: Ice dams created by heavy snowfall, thick ice and heat.

May 4, 2009 

Cabins set sail. Boats motored above sunken pickup trucks and the river nearly touched the rim of a local basketball hoop.

As breakup floods began to hammer villages on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers this week, none was hit harder Monday than Eagle Village.

"The old village of Eagle is totally destroyed," said Ed Plumb, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. "Some buildings have water up to the second story."

The village of roughly 70 people is one of two separate Yukon River communities that sit beside the Canadian border.

As for the larger town of Eagle three miles away?

"There are estimates that the water right now is 10 feet above the all-time record," Plumb said.

Combine a long winter of heavy snowfall, thick river ice and -- according to the National Weather Service -- record high temperatures in the eastern Interior last week, and you have perfect conditions for ice jams that can act as dams to flood riverside communities.

Villages along both the Yukon and Kuskokwim saw rivers spill across city streets over the weekend. The Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center in Anchorage had issued a flood warning for Aniak and a flood watch for McGrath on the Kuskokwim as of Monday afternoon.

The Yukon community of Circle -- downriver from Eagle -- is likely next in line, hydrologists said. The Weather Service issued a flood warning for the town Monday night.

That's because the ice jam that's flooding Eagle has to break sometime. "Once it does release, you're going to have this huge wall of water coming down," Plumb said.

ROOFS AFLOAT

Retired teacher Ron McGowan lives less than a mile from Eagle Village. He was far enough away to escape the flood but close enough to see the roofs of the old village's buildings floating in the water.

The flooding came overnight. Friends lost their homes and their vehicles, escaping in the middle of the night in canoes, he said.

"It just all the sudden was the wave off the river. And everybody was scrambling just for their lives, let alone to save anything."

All told, about nine occupied buildings were destroyed in the village, said John Borg, a former postmaster who has lived in the area for more than 40 years. That includes homes as well as the local clinic and village public safety officer's office.

The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management hadn't heard any reports of injuries from the flood as of Monday evening, said spokesman Jeremy Zidek.

Local families who lost their homes or couldn't reach their houses were staying with nearby friends and family. The school is providing meals, said Carl Stapler, a local National Park Service ranger at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, who snapped a photo showing water lapping against the wooden ribs of an Eagle motel.

You could have swum through the door.

POWER STILL ON

As of Monday, there were no plans to fly any of the displaced families out of Eagle, said Zidek, the Division of Homeland Security spokesman.

The power is still on in the city, people have places to go and their airstrip is open, he said. "It appears that everyone is safe. ... There's not an imminent threat to life or safety that would necessitate that we would evacuate people."

Aniak, a village of about 500 people on the Kuskokwim River, flooded Monday too.

A team of researchers there was evacuated from a hotel at 1 a.m. but the water began receding later in the day, said Robin Radlein, the hydrologist in charge at the river forecast center.

The center heard reports Sunday of flooding in the Kuskokwim villages of Red Devil and Sleetmute. In Crooked Creek, tribal council president Evelyn Thomas estimated it will cost as much as $300,000 to repair roads damaged by muddy floodwater.

Authorities had planned to evacuate Red Devil using a National Guard helicopter and transport plane but scrapped the plan as the waters receded and locals said they wanted to stay.

"All that's left for them now is the cleanup," Radlein said.

But back in Eagle, no one knows what happens next because no one has seen a flood like this before.

"The water's been slowly rising all day," Borg said.

Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.

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