National Guard rescue plane lands in Galena as flooding continues

Anchorage Daily News / adn.comMay 27, 2013 

From Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --

Updated: 5 p.m. Tuesday:

A National Guard HC-130 plane was able to land at the Galena airport at about 4 p.m., where the landing strip is “high and dry” despite major flooding in the village, state officials say.

The state on Tuesday offered to evacuate the estimated 75 remaining villagers. A downriver ice jam that led to widespread flooding remained in place, with the National Weather Service now expecting the dam to break sometime Tuesday night or Wednesday.

Flood waters temporarily came over the dike that protects the Galena airport earlier Tuesday but on Tuesday afternoon appeared to about a half-foot below the protective wall, said Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman Jeremy Zidek.

“It (the landing strip) is threatened and there was a momentary period where water was coming over, but it has gone down a slight degree,” he said.

Updated, 3:55 p.m. Tuesday:

Flooding breaches Galena airport, National Guard headed to village

Flood waters have breached a wall protecting the Galena airport, prompting the National Guard to fly to the village to evacuate many of the remaining residents, state officials say.

The Yukon River began flooding the community on Sunday, with high waters surging on Monday. About 200 people have already fled the village, according to the American Red Cross of Alaska.

An estimated 75 people remain, including many staying at a makeshift shelter at a local school, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Water has been on the rise in the village throughout the day, breaching a dike that shields the vital landing strip at by about 12:30 p.m., he said.

Galena schools superintendent Chris Reitan said about 90 percent of homes in the village have been damaged by the floods.

“Word has it that we have water up to the floor in the school now, and that’s supposed to be the highest point in town,” he said.

Reitan said Galena residents had asked the state for evacuation of the village earlier during the flooding, but most of the flights were conducted by the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference, private faith-based groups such as Samaritan’s Purse and the school district.

“We’re a little disappointed with the state response,” he said. “They have responded now, but from our standpoint it’s a little late.”

No deaths have been reported, Reitan said. Zidek said state officials decided Tuesday to pay for the evacuation flights conducted by TCC and others.

The Alaska Air National Guard has launched an HC-130 and an HH-60 Pavehawk to Galena, Zidek said. The Alaska Army National Guard is sending a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.

The aircraft were expected to reach the village at about 4:15 p.m., he said.

If the airport is flooded, the HC-130 fixed wing plane will fly to Nulato where Galena residents will be ferried by helicopter for evacuation to Fairbanks, Zidek said.

Residents who do not want to leave the village will not be forced to, he said. 

Updated 12:15 a.m. Tuesday:

More than 145 people have been evacuated by plane from the flooding Yukon River village of Galena, state emergency management officials said Tuesday. 

An ice jam about 20 miles downriver created major flooding in the village Monday, with 90 percent of roads now under water and some homes floating from their foundations, the weather service says. The dam was still in place Tuesday morning but is expected to break sometime later in the day.

Some houses built at ground level are swamped with 6 to 7 feet of water, said weather service hydrologist Ed Plumb. Plumb spoke on a cell phone as he drove along a dike protecting the Galena airport from swift-moving floodwaters, which had risen 8 to 10 inches since 1 a.m.

“Some of the residents are saying this is one of the worst floods in the history of Galena,” Plumb said.

Galena is about 270 miles west of Fairbanks.

The weather service also warned of “moderate to major flooding” today in the downriver village of Koyukuk, which could be hit with a surge of water when the ice jam breaks. The weather service urged people in that village to move to higher ground.

Planes were flying to and from Galena all night, Plumb said. Evacuees traveled by boat, then bus to the airport.

Some villagers remained in homes built on pilings, though "even some of the raised homes have water in them," Plumb said.

The evacuations began Monday night. 

The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management flew 16 elders and “medically fragile” people to Fairbanks, where a shelter has been set up at a church, said spokesman Jeremy Zidek. 

The Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference and community leaders chose to fly dozens more to safety overnight, he said. Among them: 29 people evacuated to Anchorage, where TCC has rented hotel rooms, 80 people flown to Fairbanks and another 20 or more flown to Ruby.

“Ruby is hosting an annual festival right now and so they were already set up to shelter and feed folks,” Zidek said. 

More evacuations are planned, he said.

Another 75 people were taking shelter at higher ground Tuesday, either at a village school or a former military base, Zidek said.

The state lists the population of Galena as 480, but Zidek said fewer people were believed to be in the village when the flooding began.

“All of the folks who have needed some help getting to the shelters have received that,” he said.

The extent of the damage to homes was unclear Tuesday morning and may not be fully known until the water has receded. Some roads have been washed out and likely will not be usable when flood disappears, according to the weather service.

The jam flooding the village is in an area called Bishop Rock, a bluff where the river takes a sharp, nearly 180-degree turn, Plumb said. It's a narrow bend, notorious for creating ice jams, he said.

“Ice sheets have a hard time getting around this spot," he said. Ice has backed up about 30 miles along the river, he said.

Original story:

Major flooding in the Yukon River community of Galena has forced evacuations of elders and a child and many residents were at two emergency shelters.

Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said late Monday that a plane was sent to Galena to evacuate 16 elders and a child after the tribal chief requested assistance. They were taken to Fairbanks, where a shelter has been set up in a church, he said.

Zidek said the road to the community's airport runway had been flooded, leading the community to ferry evacuees through the flooded area to the aircraft.

It wasn't immediately clear how many dwellings were flooded, he said.

Power has been turned off in some areas of the village as a precaution, he said.

More than 100 people were in two shelters set up in Galena at the old school and the Air Force base on Monday night, he said.

The flooding was being caused by an ice jam downriver in the Yukon River. The state's River Watch Team reports the water has fallen 2 feet in the last several hours, but water levels fluctuated over the past day.

On Monday night, the Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center reported that water levels had stabilized in the old town area of Galena but were rising in the new town area "and the severity of the flooding there continues to worsen."

The forecast center reported that the ice jam, at Bishops Rock, remained in place but appeared to the fracturing along the banks, which would allow water to escape.

Flood warnings are in effect for Galena, Hughes, and Buckland. Flood watches are in effect for Koyukuk and Nulato.



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