Floodwaters recede in Talkeetna

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 21, 2012 

Update, Saturday 12:30 p.m.:

From Casey Grove in Talkeetna --

Talkeetna residents hardest hit by the flood were busy pumping water out of basements and low-lying first floors Saturday afternoon. The silty, light-brown river water continued to drop away from roadways on the east side of town, where only two streets remained submerged.

Instead of the "wall of water" many had feared was coming Friday, a sense of relief washed over the historic downtown district Saturday. With roads in East Talkeetna inundated by about two feet of water Friday, longtime residents said it was the worst flooding they'd seen in Talkeetna in more than 30 years.

Still, emergency managers said it could have been worse.

"Luckily, we didn't have any buildings float away," said Mike Krepel, who, with his wife Jenny runs the Museum of Northern Adventure.

Krepel used a large pump -- 125 gallons a minute, he said -- to suck water out of the museum's flooded first floor. Water from East Talkeetna built up behind a berm beneath railroad tracks, and surged through a culvert, surrounding the museum and its outbuildings.

"It blew its way in pretty quick," Krepel said. "We don't think we lost anything important, but we were going pretty hard for several hours."

Officials, meanwhile, are warning anyone getting water from wells not to drink it because of a contamination risk. Initial tests by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough indicated the water was safe, but officials were waiting for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct more stringent testing before calling the water safe, said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, who was helping disseminate information for incident commanders.

"They should treat it as if it is contaminated," McLaughlin said.

The incident commanders are also recommending that residents cleaning up debris, possibly sitting in contaminated water, should wear rubber gloves and even masks to avoid getting sick, McLaughlin said.

"There were a lot of people working real hard out there all night long. Some of them are getting sleep now, and hopefully they'll freshen up," McLaughlin said. "The worst, hopefully, is over, but we definitely can't stand down. We've got rain in the forecast, so we'll take that as it comes."

A flood warning remains in effect for the Susitna Valley through Sunday morning. An updated advisory from the National Weather Service on Saturday morning said rivers and streams draining from the Talkeetna Mountains have crested and fell steadily Friday night, and rain expected on Saturday won't cause river levels to rise back to high levels of Friday.

Rivers in the western Susitna basin, including the Yentna and Skwentna rivers, will get more rain this weekend and are likely to rise, the Weather Service said.


Update, Saturday 8:20 a.m.:

From Casey Grove in Talkeetna -

As morning dawned on Talkeetna, it was clear the flood water had receded, no longer threatening the historic downtown and, while leaving standing water in much of the east side of town, roads there were more easily passable.

Where the Susitna River briefly seeped through a line of sandbags late Friday, the water had retreated to some boulders about 100 feet back from the barrier by early Saturday. Water from the Talkeetna River still flowed from East Talkeetna through a culvert under the Talkeetna Spur Road toward downtown but at a much slower pace. Volunteers had worked into the early morning hours Saturday to line sandbags on D Street, diverting water away from the rest of downtown and an old airstrip. The effort wasn't enough to stop the water from touching at least one house on the street, a log cabin with several inches of water at its door and surrounding its frame.

There are many more houses impacted by water in East Talkeetna, where the Talkeetna River backed up from its confluence with the Susitna and rushed into the neighborhood. Some houses built on raised gravel pads were untouched; others were completely surrounded by water.

Still, the situation on the east side of town seemed to be improving Saturday morning as well. One street in East Talkeetna under at least a foot of water late Friday was clear Saturday morning, though the side streets remained covered.


Earlier story from Friday night:

Friday morning may have brought the sun and blue skies to the rain-drenched region, but there was little relief for the flood-weary in the Susitna Valley, where conditions only worsened around Talkeetna and elsewhere.

Rain that earlier fell deep in the Talkeetna Mountains worked its way to Talkeetna itself Friday morning, menacing the historic community founded at the meeting place of three big rivers, all of them now swollen.

One of them, the Talkeetna River, was several feet above flood stage and about half a foot shy of the record set in the big flood of 1986. And the river hadn't crested yet. The Susitna River had risen so high its waters backed up into the Talkeetna, and the Chulitna was overbrimming.

As water broke through a protective levee in three places, Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials urged the 100 or so Talkeetna residents to leave town. School officials emptied the Talkeetna elementary school around noon, taking children to the high school on safer ground. By Friday evening, subdivisions on the outskirts of Talkeetna were inundated with slow-moving, rising water as volunteers placed sandbags in an effort to protect the town's business district.

About 9 p.m., floodwater continued to flow through East Talkeetna, covering streets with more than a foot of water. In the center of town, water reached the lines of sandbags but didn't seem to be going any further.

Elsewhere, flooding began to subside in some areas of the Mat-Su borough, but problems remained. At least one home was reported washed into the Matanuska River by eroding banks even as the river remained below flood stage.

The river's gauge near the Old Glenn Highway bridge appeared to have crested around 11 feet, not quite flood stage, said National Weather Service hydrologist David Streubel. It was at 6.3 feet Wednesday.

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


Other Mat-Su rivers were flooding but mostly a bit shy of their records, the Little Su and Yentna and Montana and Willow creeks. The gauge on the Yentna was flooded and has stopped sending telemetry data, Streubel said. He expected the Yentna to continue to rise until it crests over the weekend.

On the Kenai Peninsula, Seward residents and those living along the Kenai River continued to struggle with water, and more was on the way. Saturday's Region III cross country championships, scheduled to take place in Seward, were moved to Soldotna's Tsalteshi Trails at Skyview High. The National Weather Service predicted heavy rain after midnight Friday in the Kenai Mountains and Western Prince William Sound and continued its flood warning. The same rain -- and a continuing flood warning -- was posted for the Matanuska Valley, with less threatening volumes of rain predicted for Anchorage and the rest of the Mat-Su Borough.

With their banks filled beyond overflowing, placid creeks turned angry and tore away at concrete, steel and timber, damaging and in some cases destroying highway and railroad bridges and roadbed.

The Alaska Railroad canceled all traffic north of Wasilla until at least Monday and dispatched crews to deal with washouts and bridge damage along 70 miles of track from Willow to Gold Creek. The railroad was able to repair damaged track in the Seward area and kept trains running between there and Anchorage and to the terminal in Whittier.

Gov. Sean Parnell toured the Talkeetna area in a National Guard Black hawk helicopter. At a stop at the Talkeetna airport, said he issued a disaster declaration for the Mat-Su and Kenai boroughs and other affected areas. At the time, rising water was threatening to cut off the airport from town, though the runway appeared to be above the risk.

The governor's declaration frees state personnel and equipment to protect Talkeetna from imminent threat and opens up the possibility of state funds to help rebuild after the flood.

"We want to get as much manpower mobilized as we can, and get it done early," Parnell said "My heart goes out to the families, the Alaskans who've been displaced. That's our first priority, is making sure that they're safe and they've got the ability to get shelter."

The Red Cross set up a shelter at the Sunshine Senior Citizens Center, where the spur road to Talkeetna meets the Parks Highway, for anyone displaced by the flood who didn't have anywhere else to stay. A Red Cross spokeswoman said there were enough cots for about 30 people at the shelter and that her agency had more supplies and was prepared to set up other shelters to accommodate as many as 200 evacuees, if needed.


Longtime Talkeetna resident Bob Johnson was the first to check in at the shelter after emergency services officials "kept bugging" him to evacuate, he said.

"If it floods, it floods," Johnson said, looking out a window at his dog, Hooch, outside in a small patch of fenced in parking lot.

Emergency services officials said the water was affecting about 100 homes. As of late Friday, no injuries had been reported, but at least one person required a rescue from a sandbar. He'd been camping there when the rushing water turned his campsite into an island.

Travis Sanoski, a local photographer, said he drove by on a four-wheeler, heard the man yelling, and drove through the water to reach him.

Evacuations from homes in town were not mandatory, but firefighters going home to home were giving strong warnings that residents should head for higher ground. The emptiness of town late Friday was a sign that most had heeded that advice.

"We strongly suggest people leave, because depending on what the river does, it could eliminate their access to leave," said Talkeetna fire captain Eric Chappel. "The water coming into town, it could rise fast, which is why we're urging people to leave."

On Second Street, Troy Smiley was loading his desktop computer into the back of his car, along with other important belongings. Smiley said he'd already turned off valves to his fuel and propane tanks and was about to drive to a friend's house to stay for the night.

"Yeah, I'm worried, but I have friends in East Talkeetna who've already lost their homes," he said.

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 surrounding ground and as of mid afternoon there was no sign that the flood would reach it, Dearwent said.

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

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 for the night. One woman had leashed a runaway dog and given him the temporary name "Flotsam."

Bar patrons at the Fairview Inn, downtown, were turned out about 8 p.m. as the last of the downtown establishments closed. Outside, residents made trenches with a backhoe to divert 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 for sleeping.

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

The story was written by Richard Mauer and reported by Mauer in Anchorage and Casey Grove in Talkeetna. Reach Mauer at rmauer@adn.com and Grove at casey.grove@adn.com.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service