Lookouts stood high on Koyukuk Mountain Wednesday, watching the Yukon River below with binoculars and hunting scopes.
"We're looking at a flash flood. Something like a dam breaking," said Koyukuk Mayor Patrick Madros.
Koyukuk sits about 14 miles downriver from the ice jam that caused massive flooding and a near-complete evacuation of Galena this week. It's the latest community to put life on hold as the annual river breakup winds down the Yukon.
The ice dam began flooding Galena on Sunday and by Wednesday an estimated 300 or more people had fled by plane to Fairbanks, Anchorage or other villages. The local school district estimated 30 to 40 people stayed behind, camping with their dogs at the airport, taking shelter in former Air Force barracks and eating military-style "meals ready to eat."
The jam showed signs of weakening by 11 a.m. Wednesday, and by 5 p.m. the Weather Service reported that part of the dam had peeled away. It was still blocking the river, but water levels had already began rising downstream, the agency said.
The Weather Service expected the jam to break and water to began draining from Galena by late Wednesday or Thursday. When it does, a surge of water was expected to flood Koyukuk, where the service has issued a flood warning through 4 p.m. Thursday.
The damage to Galena has been devastating, said Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb.
Plumb has been stationed in Galena, where a dike surrounding the airport and a few government buildings has created a dry "island" in the middle of bobbing ice and debris.
"There's a lot of cars that are totally submerged in water and floating around," Plumb said. "There are houses that are totally submerged in water up to the roof."
"You can see sheens of fuel across the floodwaters and spilled fuel tanks," Plumb said. Water inundated the sewage lagoon, which "is just part of the flood now," he said.
There is no power in the village, no working bathrooms and limited food. "All we've had is the shirt on our backs," Plumb said.
The flooding began with a few fingers of water covering the roads, said Paul Apfelbeck, a teacher. Sometime on Monday afternoon it began to surge, seemingly climbing by a foot at a time. It sounded like Niagara Falls, he said.
"People were scrambling all over the neighborhood, putting their cars up on higher ground."
Apfelbeck flew to Fairbanks late Tuesday on an Alaska Air National Guard HC-130. The plane carried 32 people and 19 dogs. Alaska State Troopers flew another six people and seven pets to Fairbanks at about the same time.
Some Galena residents, including schools superintendent Chris Reitan, said the state waited too long to help with widespread evacuations given the alarming surge of flood waters Monday night. No one has been killed or reported missing. Nearly every home in town has been damaged, residents said.
Gov. Sean Parnell visited Galena Tuesday and members of his cabinet met Wednesday to discuss whether the state should declare a disaster emergency, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
A disaster declaration could unlock state relief money for the village, he said. The state Emergency Management team in Galena asked for additional supplies for those remaining in the community, including 10 cases of bottled water and 12 cases of MREs.
In Koyukuk, a Koyukon Athabascan community about 30 miles downriver, residents were already preparing for the worst, Madros said.
They hauled water and wood to higher ground. They prepared to shut the power off in the town of about 75 people and evacuated the sick and elderly Tuesday on a plane to Fairbanks. Madros, the mayor, stood on flood watch from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday.
"This is the worst flood we've ever seen in Galena so we're expecting a lot of water once that dam breaks to come this way," he said.
The Weather Service expects the surge to take about four hours to reach Koyukuk once the ice jam breaks. The water will arrive in a wave, the flood warning says.
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