As floods recede, Talkeetna cleans up

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 22, 2012 

TALKEETNA -- Instead of the "wall of water" many had feared would hit this small community, at the meeting place of three rain-swollen rivers, a sense of relief washed over town Saturday as residents woke to see flood water subsiding.

Still, in the newer neighborhood on the east side of town, residents were hit hard. The nearby Talkeetna River, backed up at its confluence with the already flood-stage Susitna River, jumped its banks, rushed into basements and first floors of the lower-lying houses, and covered roads in a foot or more of silty water Friday.

The chocolate-milk-colored water poured westward, stopped only by a berm holding up the normally busy railroad tracks, then surged through a culvert running under the tracks and headed toward downtown.

Rushing under the tracks, the water flooded the first floor of the Museum of Northern Adventure and partially eroded the foundation of a gift store across the road.

Residents worked late Friday night and into the early morning hours Saturday laying down sandbags and digging out ditches to divert the water away from downtown. Using heavy equipment through the night, state Department of Transportation crews dug out ditches and cleared debris to improve drainage in East Talkeetna.

On Saturday, the effort turned from protecting town to cleaning it up.

Officials warned 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.

The incident commanders are also recommending that residents cleaning up debris sitting in contaminated water wear rubber gloves and even masks to avoid getting sick, McLaughlin said. The local refuse transfer site, which usually charges $1 per bag of garbage, was taking flood debris for free, and a large trash bin had been set near the airport, close to the more-damaged homes, she said.

The emergency managers were still uncertain Saturday exactly how many homes had been affected by the flood, but early reports indicated as many as 100 had seen some impact.

"Certainly, almost everyone in East Talkeetna is going to have some damage, but we haven't heard tales of significant structural damage," McLaughlin said. "Cleanup is definitely going to be a major task for the next few days."

"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," she 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."

There were no injuries reported due to the flooding, McLaughlin said. One man had been rescued from his gravel bar campsite after a branch of the river turned it into an island, and a helicopter picked up two others in Sherman, up the railroad tracks from Talkeetna, after the water stranded them there, McLaughlin said.

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 wasn't expected to 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.

Longtime residents called Friday's surge the worst flooding they'd seen in more than 30 years.

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

Saturday afternoon, Krepel was using a pump -- sucking 125 gallons a minute out of the building, he said -- to remove water from the museum's flooded first floor. In a flurry of action, the Krepels had moved the museum's exhibits and other at-risk items to safety, he said.

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

Jenny Krepel said she had worried that burglars might take advantage of the evacuations and steal things from the museum's gift shop.

"I'm thankful the troopers were turning people around outside of town who didn't have a reason to be here," she said. "It was really quiet in town, and we couldn't shut the doors because we were pumping water out."

The Krepels planned to remove damaged sheetrock and plywood and, like many others, were calling their insurance company to get an assessment.

In East Talkeetna, Mark Forrester was pumping water out of the basement of Alaska Mountaineering School. His friends, the owners, had evacuated their horses, birds, a turtle and a dog, but couldn't save their fish and an eel, which were in about four feet of water covering the floor, Forrester said.

"They looked like they could use some help," he said, manning the pump. "I think it'll take a while."

Down the street, Renamary Rauchenstein was checking on the Catholic church, St. Bernard Parish, which was surrounded by water Saturday that had flooded the building the day before.

Plans were in the works to hold Sunday service at a church in Trapper Creek, nearby on the Parks Highway, she said.

"We might start with a prayer here," said Rauchenstein, the church's administrator. "But we'll have to see about the cleanup. It's going to take a lot. That silt doesn't come out easily."

"It came up all the way to the altar," she said. "You can see the line of silt on the altar steps. What a mess."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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