Kuskokwim River flooding took villagers by surprise

Casey Grove
A log home is flooded in Crooked Creek on May 9, 2011. Some homes were tilted, some moved off their foundations and some near the bank are expected to become lost to the river when the ice begins moving.
Photo courtesy Bethel Search and Rescue
Children and teens wait at the state building at the Crooked Creek airport for evacuation to Donlin Creek, north of the village.
Photo courtesy Bethel Search and Rescue

When the worst flood in the recorded history of Crooked Creek hit the Kuskokwim River village Sunday night, the waters surged through town so fast that some villagers ran for higher ground in their sleeping clothes. A few had no shoes. One man woke to find his home afloat.

A village leader described the scene Wednesday from nearby Donlin Creek Mine, a makeshift evacuation center where about 50 villagers were flown by helicopter and plane.

"Reality is beginning to set in," said lifelong Crooked Creek resident Evelyn Thomas, president of the village tribal council. "Some of the children, they can't comprehend that they have no iPods or laptops or clothing left. They think that they're going to go home to that, and they are not. There is nothing left for them to go home to."

An ice jam caused river levels to jump 30 feet during the flood, according to the National Weather Service. At least 24 houses were destroyed, under water or floated off their foundations. Even as dozens of people flew to the nearby mine, about 90 residents stayed behind to see what they could salvage.

"Everyone is trying hard to keep their spirits up, but it's not easy to see all the devastation," Crooked Creek teacher Joanne Vanfleteren told the Daily News in a Facebook message.

While the phone lines are down, the school is running on a generator, she said.

The National Weather Service River Forecast Center reported that water was flowing past the river again by 4 p.m. Wednesday, indicating the ice jam may have broken.

Not so, Vanfleteren said. "(The) ice jam did not break, but the river ice moved very slowly for about 45 minutes, letting the water drop a little. Ice is not moving now, and water is slowly coming back up."

Thomas, speaking by phone from the mining camp, recounted the flood that swept through her hometown. It started about 11:30 a.m. Sunday when ice and water on the frozen river began to move, she said.

The ice jam soon began building downriver.

"About a mile-and-a-half below the village was where the ice started stacking up," said Peter Atchak, president of Bethel Search and Rescue, who was flying in a plane over the village at the time. He suspects ice continued to pile up over the next several hours.

Back in the village, Thomas noticed the river rising at about 8 p.m. Suddenly, the water levels shot up, she said.

"It rose so quickly that we were running through the water to get away from it," Thomas said. Icy floodwater cut off the residents from boats loaded with emergency supplies in the lower section of the village, she said.

As the villagers escaped to higher ground, the water followed. Many residents holed up at the village store, which is on a hill, Thomas said.

Soon, even the store was flooded.

"It was very, very hectic, and it lasted all night, just trying to make sure everyone made it out safely," she said. "There were some people who had to be woken up."

Residents in a boat knocked on doors to make sure everyone was out of their homes, Thomas said.

"They saw this house that was floating," she said. "And they banged on the door, and the guy in there was asleep. He didn't even know he was floating."

Thomas phoned the Donlin Creek Mine for help about 6 a.m. Monday, she said.

Staffers from the mine -- who support an operation looking for traces of gold about 10 miles north of Crooked Creek -- made multiple trips with the mine's Robinson R44 helicopter Monday to ferry the villagers to safety. An Alaska State Troopers plane, a Cessna 208, carried passengers too.

"Back and forth, back and forth. Everyone was exhausted by the time this was over with," Thomas said. "We're still tired."

Thomas' own two-story house was covered in floodwater, she said. "A state trooper pilot took a picture of a dog that was on top of my roof."

The damage -- which already includes two dozen ruined houses and toppled fuel tanks and power lines -- cannot be completely assessed until the floodwater recedes, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

A nurse was headed to the village Wednesday to perform a health assessment of the people who are still there, Zidek said.

He says people remaining in Crooked Creek have requested that milk, baby cereal and other supplies be flown to the village. The Red Cross flew clothing and toiletries to the evacuees at the mine.

More than 140 miles northeast of Bethel, Crooked Creek is a largely Yup'ik and Ingalik Athabascan community where life revolves around subsistence hunting and fishing.

"Our fishing season will start soon, and we're definitely going to need that food source," Thomas said. "There's going to be no money. Any money that we can get a hold of is going to go into finding shelter and food for the winter."

The most immediate concern is damage the ice may cause when it starts moving again. The huge chunks of ice could crash into more houses, Atchak said.

Floodwater could also impact Aniak, farther along the Kuskokwim, Zidek said. Hydrologists with the National Weather Service speculated Tuesday that a midwinter warm spell, which broke up ice from Crooked Creek to Aniak, is causing stronger ice jams on that part of the river this spring.

A National Weather Service flood warning remains in effect through Friday for the Lower Kuskokwim from Kalskag upstream to Napaimiut.

Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.