Update, 5 p.m. Monday: On Monday, first responders loaded residents who chose to stay in their homes onto boats and a hybrid floating vehicle to cross Willow Creek so they could stock up on groceries, fuel and necessities, Matanuska-Susitna Emergency Services director Ken Barkley said.
Officials were still trying to determine just how many people live in the impacted area, Barkley said. Many of the homes are farms with numerous animals, he said.
“If we were to get them out, then we’d have to deal with the animals, too,” he said. “So that’s why we decided to do it this way. If we can get them their supplies out there, they’re on high ground and they’re safe, so they’ll be content.”
Barkley said crews talked with 20 to 26 people Monday. Ten families journeyed across the creek to get food, two people voluntarily evacuated, a 14-dog sled team was evacuated to a nearby kennel and crews delivered supplies to one man who was unable to get out.
Barkley said the water level rose slightly throughout Monday and “we can’t predict tomorrow.” Engineers and road crews were on site Monday examining the ice jam and Barkley said they will return Tuesday to try to mitigate the backed up creek. Barkley said he expects the Deneki bridge to remain closed throughout the week.
First responders will not be offering a shuttle service to stranded residents Tuesday, and Barkley said anyone who calls 911 should expect delays because crews need special equipment to cross the icy creek.
“Right now, we want to make sure that nobody tries to get out on their own,” Barkley said. “They will not make it across safely.”
An ice jam caused Willow Creek to flood late Saturday night, prompting at least 13 households in Willow to evacuate, Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials said in an alert Sunday.
Six homes were damaged by floodwater, and Mat-Su’s emergency services department advised nearby residents on Sunday afternoon they could be stuck for days if they didn’t leave soon.
“(Deneki Bridge) will be impassable to vehicle traffic for the next few days until the situation stabilizes or mechanical work can be completed to clear the water off the roads,” said Ken Barkley, director of the borough’s emergency services. “People needing to work or get out of this area should do so now while we are here to assist.”
The Willow Fire Department, Alaska State Troopers and Mat-Su Water Rescue Team were called to the area around 11 p.m. Saturday to assess the situation and help with evacuations, according to a statement from the borough.
Barkley said three of the six households that flooded immediately evacuated early Sunday. He said others were reluctant to leave without their pets and sheltered in place until later in the day.
By 5 p.m. Sunday, seven additional families were evacuated with help from rescue crews, Barkley said. Their homes were not damaged during the flood, but they lived on the road anticipated to close. The American Red Cross opened a temporary shelter for victims of the flooding at the Willow Community Center. The Mat-Su Animal care facility will house pets during the emergency.
The total number of people displaced is unclear, Barkley said, because some people left the area without assistance.
The flooding started when large chunks of ice jammed at Deneki bridge and restricted normal water flow, according to an advisory issued by the National Weather Service. Fishhook Road and areas west of the bridge were impacted, according to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Department of Emergency Services.
Barkley said the Willow Creek ice jam was still in place as of Sunday evening, and conditions on the river seemed to remain steady, neither rising or receding. He said the public works department will be assess how to remove or get rid of the ice dam, but the main concern Sunday was for the safety of the residents.
“The message to residents is that we recommend you get out and get somewhere safe now,” he said.
The area has seen flooding in the past. Barkley said flooding this late in the year is not normal.
‘A river in my front yard’
Kevin Vance and his wife had just returned home from Christmas shopping late Saturday when they heard something that sounded like a gust of wind outside their Willow home.
When they looked out the window, it looked like Willow Creek was in their backyard, flowing in the wrong direction. Within minutes, they were standing in knee-deep water in their bedroom, Vance said. As the water rose, it covered their front yard as well, where Vance said there was a strong current.
“It formed a river in my front yard,” he said.
Vance said they called 911, fearing they wouldn’t be able to make it out of the home. “It looked like we were in dire straits,” he said.
Vance said two of his adult children and three of their dogs left early Sunday, but he and his wife chose to stay behind with their other dogs and pet macaw. He said they have a number of rescue dogs, including retired sled dogs.
He said his son’s girlfriend was able get out in her vehicle as the water began rushing into the road late Saturday.
“She left the driveway with the river chasing her,” he said. “The water was hitting her wheels as she drove away.”
The water began to recede Sunday, but Vance said it has a layer of ice on top. His cars are frozen in the water.
Vance said his family will likely stay with friends or family in Willow or Wasilla as they figure out their next steps. He said flooding took out some of the mechanical equipment in the home and there’s likely still several feet of standing water in the crawl space beneath their house.
The situation is exacerbated by the cold weather, Vance said. He knows there is a lot of damage, but won’t know the extent of it until the water recedes.
“This isn’t just going to go away,” he said.
Vance said he’s thankful for help and support from nearby neighbors and the Willow community.
“We’ve been through several fires and flooding--people in Willow know how to work together,” he said.