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Fort Yukon prepares for flooding as Circle residents pick up pieces

Laurel Andrews
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

The Interior Alaska community of Circle was hit with major flooding Sunday morning as the Yukon River’s water levels rose rapidly and soaked nearly every building in the town -- but by late afternoon the worst had passed. 

“The water came up at least 5 to 8 feet very rapidly this morning,” Jeremy Zidek, public information officer for Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security, said Sunday afternoon. “The waters are beginning to recede pretty quickly now.”

Circle, population 87, flooding was due to the same surge of ice and water that hit the upriver village of Eagle on Friday. A flood warning will remain in effect until Monday evening, but water has “receded significantly,” according to the National Weather Service. “All the homes and most structures in Circle were flooded,” National Weather Service writes. “Water is still inundating some portions of the village but the worst flooding appears to have ended.”

Zidek said they are still assessing the extent of the damage. He noted that 5,000 gallons of treated water are available for residents to drink at the local washateria, but they will still be issuing a “boil water notice” as a precaution. The general store will remain closed, floodd in 3.5 feet on its main level.

“Now our primary concern is with Fort Yukon,” Zidek said. The breakup front is traveling rapidly down the Yukon River, and is expected to arrive at Fort Yukon, 55 miles downstream of Circle, by 9 p.m. Sunday.

Ice remains intact where the Porcupine River and Yukon converge, which may increase flooding danger. Zidek noted that it “could just barrel right into it and push past, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

A flood watch is in effect at Fort Yukon until 4 p.m. Tuesday. Additional flood watches have been issued farther downsteam from Beaver to Rampart through Wednesday afternoon. A flood watch has also been issued for central Interior towns of Nenana, Anderson, Tanana, Minto, Manley Hot Springs, Rampart, Lake Minchumina and Livengood, from Wednesday afternoon to Friday afternoon, as the same surge of ice and water flows down the Yukon River.

However, the ice appears to be deteriorating and becoming more spread out, which could limit how much the river will rise, the Weather Service wrote. 

Earlier Sunday, water was up to 6 feet deep in Circle, according to the National Weather Service's River Forecast Center, higher than the 2009 flood that devastated the old village of Eagle. The road to the airport flooded, along with several homes and Circle’s general store.

“Almost all of the structures in the community were impacted by water, with some houses having up to 4 feet of water,” Zidek said. 

About 25 structures dot the landscape in Circle, according to Department of Environmental Conservation maps. However, some of those structures could be seasonal or abandoned, so it’s hard to say how many occupied buildings total have been flooded, Zidek said.

An emergency response team from Homeland Security will be sent to Circle on Monday to assess the damage. Meanwhile, all community members are safe, with some taking shelter at the school, general store, and another location near the post office.  The power is on, and the community has access to heat and water.

“(The water) was probably 2 feet away from the post office, and we’re one of the higher points in town,” postmaster Michel Jentry said. “It got all of downtown pretty much.”

Jentry has lived in Circle for nine years and has never seen flooding like this. Her home flooded with 2 to 3 feet of water, but she was able to evacuate her five sled dogs and two house dogs before the water hit by keeping watch on the slough in front of her house. When chunks of ice showed up in the slough, she made preparations to evacuate, rounded up her dogs, and headed to the post office, where she expects to spend the night.

As of Sunday afternoon, “we’re just trying to get an idea of the damage,” Jentry said. She noted that Alaska State “Troopers had a fast response,” and the community pulled together in face of the flooding danger.

The village of Fort Yukon downstream of Circle was put on flood watch Sunday afternoon. The River Forecast center writes:

“Residents of low lying areas in Fort Yukon could experience flooding starting this evening or Monday. The water could rise very rapidly and with little, if any, notice. If an ice jams downstream of Fort Yukon the water could rise even higher.”

Homeland Security sent a pilot and hydrologist to Fort Yukon on Sunday to monitor water  levels. Residents are being asked to take precautions to protect themselves and their property, and to be prepared to act quickly if flooding begins.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com