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Yukon flooding shifts from one Alaska town to another

Jerzy Shedlock
Flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
A damaged cabin after flooding in Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Ice chunks washed up on shore in Circle after the Yukon River flooded the town on May 19.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Ice washed up on shore after major flooding hit Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
An aerial view of flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
An aerial view of flooding in Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
Flooding hit Circle on Sunday, May 19, affecting all homes and most of the buildings in the Interior community.
Courtesy Scott Lindsay
An aerial view of flooding in Circle, May 19, 2013
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
An aerial view of flooding damage in Circle, May 19, 2013
Courtesy Scott Lindsay
An aerial view of buildings flooded in Circle on May 19, 2013
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
An aerial view of damage to the Interior community of Circle, hit by major flooding on May 19, 2013
Courtesy Scott Lindsay
Flooding and ice breaking up damages buildings in the Yukon river village of Eagle. May 17, 2013
Courtesy Ed Christensen
Flooding and ice breaking up damages buildings in the Yukon river village of Eagle. May 17, 2013
Pat Sanders / NPS
Massive ice chunks destroy a boat launch in Eagle in mid-May 2013.
Pat Sanders | NPS
Flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Flooding damage in Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Damage in Circle, May 19, 2013 after the Yukon River flooded the Interior community.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt

One small Alaska town’s flooding worries have subsided for now, but another’s may have just begun.

Residents of Eagle and Eagle Village along the Yukon River near the Canadian border luckily prepared for potential flooding, which inundated the two communities throughout Friday morning. By Saturday afternoon, the flood watch had been lifted for Eagle and passed along to Circle, the second Alaska community situated on the banks of the mighty Yukon.

The National Weather Service reported ice moving on the Yukon for three hours Friday before an ice jam formed downstream from Eagle, which flooded the community for several hours before the jam broke.

Buildings moved off of their foundations and several outbuildings were destroyed, according to Pat Sanders, a National Park Service community liaison stationed in Eagle.

The condition of the ice between Eagle and Circle could contribute to the formation of more jams, according to the Weather Service.

Eagle’s mayor hasn’t requested help from state agencies, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The mayor feels the community can deal with the flooding issues using its own resources, he said.

Eagle residents are still on their toes, said National Park Service ranger Mark Carrico. The river, viewable from his office window in Eagle, had a “good flow” Saturday. Ice continues to build up in spots, but there are no enormous 15-foot wide chunks of ice like those passing through the town on Friday.

Ultimately, there’s no dramatic change on the river, and a channel is cutting through the ice. Now “it’s a waiting game,” Carrico said.

The main breakup front, the point in the river where ice is jumbling up, is expected to move past Circle sometime next week. The Weather Service has issued a flood warning for Circle through Tuesday. The front moved more than 40 miles since a river watch team last took flight in the area.

But Circle isn’t in any immediate danger. If the team spots flooding in a community, Zidek said, it lands and helps residents prepare. The team observed the Yukon near Circle and returned to Eagle earlier Saturday, he said.

Some Circle residents have packed up and left town, said H.C. Company Store owner Earla Hutchinson. The elders tend to flee to nearby communities, she said, but she’s staying to protect her goods. Hutchinson and the remaining residents are placing their valuables in attics or atop high shelves.

In the more than two decades that Hutchinson has lived in Circle, the store has flooded five times. She said there’s little more residents can do besides secure what’s important and hope for the best. Following each flood, she rakes muck from the store, as silt is left behind once the Yukon recedes.

Flooding is simply a fact of life in Circle, she said.

If additional ice jams form upstream from Circle -- the Yukon flows northwest from Eagle -- a surge of water could move downriver when they break. And when the breakup front moves past Circle, water could start rising rapidly in the community, according to the Weather Service.

Nenana Ice Classic still in play

Farther west, the Tanana River, which flows into the Yukon, is also unusually thick for mid-May. The Tanana is home to an Alaska staple -- the Nenana Ice Classic.

Alaskans buy tickets in hopes of correctly guessing when the Tanana’s ice will give out. Tens of thousands of Alaskans participate in the classic, and this year the chances of winning for many who bought tickets has come and gone. It’s approaching a new record, as the latest the ice has ever gone out was May 20, 1964.

Meanwhile, in Southwestern Alaska, the Kuskokwim continues a gradual “rot,” Zidek said. The Kuskokwim, or Kusko, is 702 miles long and provides an abundance of Chinook salmon for subsistence fishermen living along its banks.

The Weather Service has yet to issue any flood watches or warnings for communities along the Kusko. The river is opening up near the towns of McGrath and Nikolai.

On Friday, an emergency management crew flew over McGrath but saw “limited action” on the river, Zidek said. They traveled to Stony River on Saturday, observing similar lax movement of ice on the river.

“Things are developing slowly,” he said.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com