Water crested Galena airport's dike walls Tuesday afternoon, sparking fears that the community's evacuation route would be shut down and triggering the Alaska Homeland Security to put out a call for rescue assistance.
The Alaska Air National Guard and National Army Guard responded, sending aircraft to the Interior town of 470 residents to assist with evacuations.
"Most of the town is under water," Ed Plumb, hydrologist with the River Forecast Center, said from Galena on Tuesday.
The Alaska Air National Guard sent out an HC-130 cargo aircraft large enough to evacuate the remaining residents, and an HH-Pavehawk helicopter to shuttle residents to dry parts of town. The Alaska Army Guard sent a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, with a basket capable of rescuing residents stranded in buildings.
Water levels dropped again, however, and as of 5:30 p.m., had receded to about six inches below the dike walls, leaving the airport runway operable. An ice jam remains in place some 20 miles downstream from Galena, but its expected to break sometime late Tuesday or Wednesday morning.
"I just don't see how it can hold another full day here," said Plumb. The ice is dirty and jumbled with debris, absorbing sunlight quickly, which should speed up melting.
Locals told Plumb this is one of the worst floods they have experienced. Some residences have up to 7 feet of water in them, and many roads have washed out. Once the water recedes, "there really won't be a road there," Plumb said.
The Red Cross is providing shelter for roughly 200 people who have evacuated Galena. Homeland Security does not have a full count of the evacuees, however, as some people left via private aircraft or aircraft funded by the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal consortium of 42 Interior Alaska villages.
Some residents have expressed concern that evacuation efforts did not start fast enough, Zidek said. But Homeland Security's practice is for people to shelter within the community if there is a safe place to go. In this case, though, residents "did not feel that the shelters were up to snuff," and began evacuating on their own, he said. The complaints were that the shelters at the school and military dorms didn't have sufficient water and sewer capabilities. Zidek said bottled water was available, but not sewage facilities.
At least 30 people were still taking shelter in the community, according to Homeland Security.
Flood warnings for Koyukuk and a flood watch for Nulato, downstream of Galena, are in place.
The ice jam causing the flooding is located 20 miles downriver, at a sharp "S" curve in the river notorious for creating ice blockages. It appears to be holding in place for now," Plumb said. "I was really surprised."
Interior temperatures into the 70s have contributed to the springtime ritual called break-up as frozen rivers thaw suddenly and freshly-melted water cascades down mountains, swelling rivers and streams.
Many houses are built off of the ground, and have 3 feet to 4 feet of water beneath them. Some folks have chosen not to evacuate and are staying in their elevated homes, stranded until the waters recede. Others are being housed at dorms in the old military base in Galena.
The town has no power or water. "It's difficult because there's no place to go the bathroom or wash your hands," Plumb said.
Communication from Galena on Tuesday morning was limited, but there have been no reports of injuries or lost lives, Zidek said.
Ruby, located upstream from Galena, had extra food on hand for the week-long Denakkanaaga Elder and Youth Conference that started Monday, said Elaine Wright, a tribal employee. Six planes flew into Ruby late Memorial Day with evacuees. Locals have opened their homes, and volunteers served the victims pancakes and eggs at the old preschool Tuesday morning, she said.
"They're our neighbors," said Wright. "We gotta help them. They lost everything. They don't have no clothes. They had to leave at the spur of the moment.
The victims are stunned. "It's kind of numbing to know your home is being taken out from under you," said Wright.