Talkeetna levee breached; flooding reported

Anchorage Daily News / adn.comSeptember 20, 2012 

Coverage of flooding in Southcentral Alaska has been updated with a new story.

Update 10 p.m.:

A new advisory from the National Weather Service extends the flood warning for the Susitna Valley until 10 a.m. Sunday.

"Widespread flooding persists across the Susitna Valley with nearly all rivers and streams swollen and out of their banks," the warning says.

For Talkeetna: "The Talkeetna River above the railroad bridge appears to have crested Friday afternoon just below major flood stage. Backwater effects from the Susitna River [just downstream] will prolong flooding in Talkeetna until the Susitna drops appreciably."

All current Weather Service warnings here.

Update, 9 p.m.:

From Casey Grove in Talkeetna -

The Talkeetna River, backed up at its mouth by the swollen Susitna River, continues to flow through East Talkeetna, covering streets with more than a foot of water. In historic downtown Talkeetna, water has reached lines of sandbags.

Water flowed across a road to the Talkeetna Airport and was creeping toward the runway as pilots moved their planes to safety. Close by, maintenance trains moved boulders to shore up washed out sections of track. A 500-foot section of track near Gold Creek outside of Talkeetna had washed out, the Alaska Railroad said.

As darkness was falling, some of the younger residents in town shared stories alongside the road before heading to whatever dry place they'd found to stay for the night. One woman had found a runaway dog, leashed him and given him the temporary name "Flotsom."

Bar patrons at the Fairview Inn, downtown, were turned out about 8 p.m. as the last of the downtown establishments closed due to flood danger. Residents worked with a backhoe in one part of downtown to create trenches diverting water from downtown. In East Talkeetna, residents simply tried to reach their homes to retrieve important belongings and get bedding to stay with friends.

One of those was Joe Bartz, who waded through nearly waist-high water to reach his house on the corner of Easy and Front streets. Bartz had moved out computers and mementos earlier in the day and returned to get something on which to sleep.

"The water's going to the edge of my property. It's not nearly as bad as some other properties back there," Bartz said. "There was water up to the window panes."

"It's a ghost town back there," he said. "It's really eerie."

Update 6:45 p.m.:

Gov. Sean Parnell on Friday declared "a verbal declaration of a state disaster" for the Mat-Su Borough, Kenai Peninsula and other areas affected by high winds and floods, his office announced.

"As the continuous operations of local jurisdictions extend into the weekend, an increase in state support will provide relief in terms of emergency management personnel and equipment as needed by communities," the statement said. "Currently, 10 incident management personnel have been requested through the State Emergency Operation Center to support ongoing operations in the Mat-Su area."

Parnell's full statement here.

Update, 6 p.m.:

From Casey Grove in Talkeetna -

As rain began to fall again on the Susitna Valley, residents who hadn't already evacuated the town, bordered by two raging, silty rivers, were busy stacking sandbags on the outskirts of downtown.

The downtown area remained mostly free of any flood water as of about 5 p.m. But on the east side of town, the water was reportedly rushing around and through homes. Rising water rushed across a road connecting that subdivision to the rest of town as residents in pickups and cars plowed through, hurrying to get out before their escape route was cut off.

Update 5:10 p.m.:

In Talkeetna, K2 Aviation pilot Ed Dearwent was supposed to be packing his truck Friday for his winter trip to Florida. He did get his stuff packed, but also helped ferry his employer's seven planes to drier airports to the south as a precaution. The Talkeetna runway is several feet above the surrounding ground and as of midafternoon, there was no sign that the flood would reach it, Dearwent said.

"The boss wanted us to not take a chance," Dearwent said.

But he had to leave his rented house in an East Talkeetna subdivision.

"We're just kind of looking at the water still rising," Dearwent said. "It's risen about two feet in the last two hours." Judging by a stick he placed in the ground, there was no sign the flood was abating.

From the air, he saw the inundation was widespread. On the ground, the water was about up to his house, but hadn't flooded it by midafternoon. Officials thought the water would cover Talkeetna's Main Street by around 6 p.m., about the time the flood was expected to crest, he said.

-- Richard Mauer

Update 5 p.m. Friday:

The Alaska Railroad has a major washout just south of Gold Creek, in a remote area about 45 miles north of Talkeetna, as well as three bridges south of Talkeetna where high water is scouring abutments, said Stephanie Wheeler, railroad spokeswoman.

"We've had freight trains on hold since Wednesday night," she said, due to other smaller washouts.

The railroad runs about five freight trains a day between Anchorage and Fairbanks. This time of year there's only one passenger train that goes from Anchorage to Fairbanks on Saturdays and returns on Sunday. It will not be running this weekend, but the railroad will transport passengers on buses, Wheeler said.

At Gold Creek, the earth has washed out beneath the tracks so the tracks are dangling, she said.

South of Talkeetna, waters are scouring abutments at three bridges between Willow and Talkeetna, at Little Willow Creek, Sheep Creek, and the Kashwitna River.

Crews were to begin shoring up the abutments with rip-rap Friday night.

The best case is that the repairs would be completed over the weekend, Wheeler said.

Full statement from the railroad here.

-- Rosemary Shinohara

Update 4:15 p.m. Friday:

This was posted and emailed by the Mat-Su Borough about 4 p.m.:

MAT-SU - 3:30 pm UPDATE. Talkeetna Emergency Services are currently monitoring rising water on the Susitna and Talkeetna Rivers. All residents and businesses downtown and East Talkeetna are currently under a voluntary/recommended evacuation order. Emergency Services personnel have done a door to door evacuation notification.

Evacuation is not mandatory at this time. Residents are still strongly advised to leave the area and check in with the Red Cross shelter at the Sunshine Senior Center.

East Talkeetna is currently flooded and water is encroaching on downtown Talkeetna. The rip rap dike along the lower Talkeetna has been compromised and water is flowing through. There is already water in areas that did not flood during 2006, and water is expected to continue to rise until at least 6 pm this evening.

Talkeetna Elementary School was evacuated around noon to Susitna Valley High School. Parents are picking their children at the high school.

A large number of community volunteers are working under EMS supervision sandbagging critical infrastructure within the townsite and East Talkeetna.

Emergency services personnel are on the scene and monitoring the rising waters.

Update 4 p.m. Friday:

ADN Photographer Bill Roth reports that two subdivisions east of the railroad tracks in Talkeetna have flooded. He was standing in knee-deep water in a road that didn't have any water earlier in the day and said water was continuing to rise.

Update 3:15 p.m. Friday:

Red Cross representative Katie Bender reported from the Talkeetna area that no one was staying at the emergency shelter set up at the senior center near the intersection of the Talkeetna Spur Road and the Parks Highway, but residents appeared to be heeding the evacuation order.

"We've been watching as a lot of people have been driving out of town," she said. "Our folks are on standby ready to help shelter evacuees if they need it."

Daily News photographer Bill Roth, on the scene in Talkeetna, said people were making sandbags but floodwaters had not breached the main part of town.

- Richard Mauer

Update 2:30 p.m. Friday:

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has declared a state of emergency due to widespread flooding in Seward, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and other communities from the week's rains.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre's declaration was submitted to Gov. Sean Parnell, the borough said Friday.

"With the governor's approval, the State of Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management will provide assistance to the borough and to affected areas as directed," the borough said.

- Richard Mauer

Update 2:05 p.m. Friday:

A spokeswoman for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Emergency Operations Center said that the levee protecting Talkeetna from the flooding Talkeetna River has been breached in three places and that serious flooding "is imminent."

"It is rapidly moving water," said Mary Brodigan. "There is a potential for danger."

The borough can't order people to evacuate, Brodigan said, but the 100 or so people believed to be in town are being urged to flee to the shelter set up at the Sunshine Senior Citizens Center, near the intersection of the Talkeetna Spur Road and the Parks Highway.

"We are evacuating the entire town," Brodigan said.

Children attending Talkeetna Elementary have already been evacuated to Su Valley Junior-Senior High School, where parents can pick them up. The junior-senior high is on normal schedule, the borough school district said.

The senior center shelter can accommodate only 20 people, she said. Any additional people will be assigned to another shelter, she said.

Transportation will be available.

The borough does not have a helicopter in the area to assist in evacuations, but an ambulance aircraft is now in the area flying reconnaissance, she said.

-- Richard Mauer

Update 1:37 p.m. Friday:

From the National Weather Service:


Click to read the full Susitna Valley flood warning from the weather service.

Update: 1:30 p.m. Friday:

With the voluntary evacuation of Talkeetna under way, the National Weather Service says the Talkeetna River is expected to keep rising until cresting later today.

As of 9 a.m. Friday, the river was roughly 2.2 feet above flood stage at the gauge near the Alaska Railroad bridge, said Weather Service hydrologist David Streubel. The gauge was signaling the river was at 16.7 feet, only a few inches from the 17.4-foot record set in the big flood of 1986, Streubel said.

"We expect it to crest later today and then begin falling during the weekend," Streubel said.

Other big Mat-Su rivers were similarly a bit shy of their records but still rising or just crested, including the Matanuska, Susitna, Little Su, Yentna and Montana and Willow creeks. The gauge on the Yentna was flooded and has stopped sending telemetry data, Streubel said. He expects the Yenta to continue to rise until it crests this weekend.

The Matanuska was high but within its broad plain, but its force was eroding banks. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough reported that a house fell into the river. The river's gauge near the Old Glenn Highway bridge appears to be cresting around 11 feet, not quite flood stage, Streubel said. It was at 6.3 feet Wednesday.

"It went up almost 5 feet in the last 36 hours," he said. "That tells you how much rain hit the upper Matanuska Basin."

The Susitna, a big river fed by many tributaries flowing out of the Talkeetna Mountains, might continue to rise into the weekend, he said.

On the Kenai Peninula, streams were starting to drop, but the big drainage river, the Kenai itself, was expected to keep rising into the weekend, "with some minor flooding," Streubel said. "It's above flood stage now around Cooper Landing."

The situation was improving around Seward, but a new weather system was pushing into the area that could drop more significant rain in Seward and lesser amounts in Valdez and Cordova.

In Seward, "they could have some flood issues again this weekend," Streubel said. New warnings had been issued for Valdez and Cordova, but the weather service may withdraw or downgrade them, he said.

-- Richard Mauer

Update 12:10 p.m. Friday:

The American Red Cross of Alaska has canceled plans to close its shelter near Talkeetna amid reports that the Talkeetna River is rising and putting the community at risk. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has sent a message that "flooding of the Town of Talkeetna is imminent" and urging all residents to evacuate.

The shelter, at the Sunshine Senior Center by the turnoff from the Parks Highway to Talkeetna, can accommodate about 20 people. The borough announced that elementary school students from Talkeetna Elementary are being taken to Su Valley High School.

"The Talkeetna River has risen significantly," said Katie Bender, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Mat-Su. "We're keeping (the shelter) open to make sure that if there are evacuations, they have a safe place to go." Bender was preparing to drive from Wasilla to the shelter to assist.

The borough posted and emailed this just after noon:

Fire chief Farina and Steve Mahay both agree that flooding of the Town of Talkeetna is imminent. Authorities request that all residents evacuate the town immediately. The Sunshine Senior Center can accommodate 20 people. Talkeetna Elementary School is taking student to Su Valley High School. Please contact the School District for pickup info.

Update 8 a.m. Friday:

Portions of the Richardson and Denali highways have been closed due to flooding-related problems.

High water under a bridge in Keystone Canyon near Valdez has forced the Alaska Department of Transportation to close the Richardson Highway from mileposts 12 to 16. Officials said in a web post that the closure is expected to last until at least 3 p.m.

Flooding and a washout also have forced closure of the Denali Highway at Mile 118, about 20 miles east of Cantwell on the Parks Highway. Maintenance crews are at the scene, but the closure is expected to last until 6 p.m.

For updates on road conditions, go to 511.Alaska.Gov.

In Mat-Su, the Little Susitna River rose almost a foot in three hours between about midnight and 3 a.m., the borough reported.

The Houston Fire Department has warned school buses away from flooded roads near the Little Su. The borough says some areas of the Enchanted Forest Subdivision have been evacuated.

Pay Dirt Road also is reported flooded and homes are in danger of flooding.

All Mat-Su schools are open, the school district says, but many areas will not see school bus service. See the list on the school district website.

- Mark Dent

Thursday evening story:


Flooding brought on by enduring rain forced people from homes in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and deluged parts of Seward on Thursday, but the National Weather Service said the worst would be over by Friday.

Mat-Su officials recommended evacuation from areas including a subdivison of about 30 homes outside Talkeetna and a large swath of weekend and year-round cabins and homes along Willow Creek.

North of Wasilla, 10 people were rescued by raft just after midnight Thursday when a flash flood in the area around the intersection of Seldon and Lucille roads suddenly swamped homes in an area where no creek or stream is even recorded on maps, said Mat-Su borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan. Another five were able to walk out on their own.

The rise of rivers was quick and violent, evacuated residents said.

Chuck Van Ornum escaped from his home near Willow Creek with nothing but his 14-year-old dog, named Dammit.

His area of Friday Road, just off Hatcher Pass Road in the Willow area, was rushing with what looked like whitewater when he left in the dark Wednesday night. The water was so deep that his station wagon briefly floated as he tried to drive down the road.

"It's the scariest thing I've ever done," he said. "And I've been shot, I've done everything."

Van Ornum ended up spending the night at a Red Cross shelter set up at the Willow Community Center. About 25 people were expected to take shelter there Thursday night, a staff member said, up from five the night before.

The American Red Cross established two other shelters at the Upper Susitna Senior Center near Talkeetna and at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla.

Small roads were closed around the Mat-Su due to flooding, but the Parks Highway remained open throughout the day despite encroaching water from Willow Creek, the Department of Transportation said.

In Seward, roads became gushing rivers choked with muddy debris.

By mid-afternoon a foot of water stood at Mile 3.5 of the Seward Highway, which remained open.

As of 5 p.m. on Thursday the road to Lowell Point was closed, cutting off the neighborhood.

Elementary, middle and high school is canceled on Friday, officials said.

Ten people stayed overnight Wednesday in a shelter at Seward High School, said John Foutz of the City of Seward. Thursday night shelter operations had been suspended because no one showed up seeking help.

Most people seemed to be hunkering down, staying inside and waiting for the water to subside, Foutz said.

National Weather Service river forecasters said that the worst appears to be over in both the Mat-Su area and Seward areas, with most smaller rivers and creeks cresting Thursday.

The Talkeetna River is expected to continue to rise Friday, said NWS hydrologist David Strubel.

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