Flooding leads to near-complete evacuation of Galena

khopkins@adn.comMay 28, 2013 

State officials called on the National Guard Tuesday to evacuate the few remaining people in the flooded Yukon River village of Galena.

"Ninety percent of the homes are damaged," said Galena schools superintendent Chris Reitan, who like many villagers fled to Fairbanks as flood waters began swamping the riverside town.

Caused by a stubborn ice jam 20 miles downriver, the flooding started on Sunday but caught some residents by surprise with two big surges Monday. About 200 people had been evacuated by Tuesday afternoon, according to the American Red Cross of Alaska.

The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management estimated only 75 people remained in Galena that night. Many were staying at a makeshift shelter at the school.

Longtime teacher Trisha Esmailka said she knew it was time to leave when tendrils of river and creek water began surrounding her Ford Taurus from every direction. An emergency siren, usually used only to alert the village to fires, wailed for half an hour. Her 5-year-old daughter was terrified.

"She was saying 'We're all going to die,'" Esmailka said. She waded to the car and drove to higher ground before catching a late-night flight on Monday to Anchorage.

Other Galena refugees waited out the flooding in Ruby, Tanana and Fairbanks.

"It was starting to look like we might have to spend the night in the boat," Emailka said. Her sister did just that, tying a skiff to her home as panting sled dogs crowded on the porch, she said.

Some homes built at ground level had filled with six or seven feet of water by early Tuesday, said National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb. Others lifted off their foundations.

Reitan said Galena residents had asked the state for evacuation of the village earlier during the flooding. Most of the flights were instead authorized by the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference, the school district and private faith-based groups such as Samaritan's Purse, Faith Bible Fellowship and Life Pathway, he said.

Mission Aviation Repair Center and Nenana resident Adam White contributed flights while local Galena boat drivers donated trips to the airport along flooded streets, Reitan said.

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

Zidek said state officials decided Tuesday to pay for evacuation flights conducted by TCC and others. The Emergency Management Division generally does not evacuate a large number of people from a village if local shelters are readily available and people can still fly in and out of the community.

But a state official in the village reported Tuesday that the shelters were insufficient. By 12:30 p.m., water temporarily poured over a dike that protects the village landing strip, he said.

That led the state to offer evacuations to anyone who wanted to leave.

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

The rescue plane had landed by 4 p.m., Zidek said. He expected most of the remaining villagers to leave. Residents who do not want to leave the village would not be forced to, he said.

The state lists the population of Galena as 484, but Zidek said fewer people were believed to be in the village when the flooding began.

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.

The Weather Service expected the ice jam to break sometime Tuesday night or Wednesday. The released threatened to create another problem downriver in Koyukuk, where a flood warning is in place through 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Elsewhere, flood warnings were in effect for the villages Buckland, Hughes and Kobuk.


Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.




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