Historic ice jam flooding along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers destroyed homes and caused major damage in two Alaska communities.
By Monday, residents in Circle, on the Yukon, and Crooked Creek, on the Kuskokwim, began to grapple with damage that included multiple homes lifted from their foundations, slammed by ice or inundated after floodwaters rose quickly Saturday and receded into Sunday.
Flooding due to this year’s quick spring thaw prompted a state emergency declaration Monday for several communities as officials continue to monitor ice breakup along the Yukon and Kuskokwim as well as snowmelt-related high water elsewhere including Glennallen.
Conditions were changing rapidly but the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center issued flood warnings and watches Monday along other stretches of both rivers.
Forecasters had predicted a heightened risk of flooding this year because of the above-average snowpack and low temperatures into springtime. Some flooding was reported last week in communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, including in Red Devil and Eagle.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration for Eagle, Circle, Crooked Creek and Glennallen over the weekend. The declaration will open up additional funding for recovery and emergency response costs. Individual assistance programs can help residents with funding to restore damaged homes and provide temporary housing.
In Glennallen, shallow water covered a portion of the Glenn Highway, but the Department of Transportation had a pilot car assisting traffic. There was no major damage though water surrounded some buildings, said Mike Ottenweller, a forecaster with the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center. The flooding could continue through upcoming weeks as more snow melts, Ottenweller said.
Recovery is going to be challenging in Circle and Crooked Creek, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“There’s a lot of ice that’s been deposited on roads and within the community — and we’re talking about huge chunks of ice, some of them as tall as 12 feet,” he said. “... A lot of homes have been pushed off their foundation in Circle and moved some distance.”
‘There’s no evidence of it even being there’
An ice jam on the Yukon River caused water levels to rapidly rise in the small Interior Alaska town of Circle on Saturday night before dramatically receding and leaving behind damaged homes, debris and icebergs the size of semi trucks littered on yards and roadways.
The flood was either at or near a record-high level it reached in 1945, Ottenweller said.
Circle is roughly 160 miles northeast of Fairbanks and home to roughly 75 people.
On Saturday afternoon, a group of residents gathered at the riverbank to celebrate breakup season with a barbecue, said Diane Olmstead, a teacher in Circle. Olmstead had returned to her housing unit to grab a bag of valuables and said she intended to drive her new Subaru Outback to a higher parking lot before she waited out the flood. But Olmstead said she never had the chance to drive it there.
Water started creeping toward the school just before 8 p.m. and within about 10 minutes Olmstead said there was already more than a foot of water.
Residents began checking on their neighbors by boat and Olmstead said she watched as her colleague was rescued from their housing building and brought to the school. Water began to seep into the school and they watched and waited for it to go down.
By about 9:30 p.m., “it started to recede almost as dramatically as it rose,” she said.
Residents began to survey the damage by boat and by drone. Olmstead said she tried to sleep before walking through town Sunday morning.
As she walked through the roads, tears fell from Olmstead’s eyes as she took in the damage. One house near the river was completely washed away — “there’s no evidence of it even being there,” she said. At least seven other nearby homes were knocked from their foundations and bashed with ice, she said.
Olmstead said her car is destroyed and she lost nearly all of her belongings.
No one was hurt during the flooding, but the village was without electricity and water Monday and communication systems were limited, Zidek said. Emergency officials were working to get generators, backup communication systems and clean drinking water into the village. Zidek said the main focus now is meeting those critical needs before officials begin assessing the damage.
A flood warning was posted Monday downriver in Fort Yukon, where there was a possibility for additional flooding.
“We’re hopeful that it continues to move down the river and doesn’t have any more actual jamming,” Ottenweller said.
Crooked Creek rescue
An ice jam on the Kuskokwim River caused rapid flooding in Crooked Creek on Saturday night into early Sunday, Zidek said. Most residents evacuated to the school, which is on higher ground, he said.
Crooked Creek is roughly 50 miles northeast of Aniak and home to about 90 people.
As the water rose, emergency officials called on the Alaska National Guard to rescue a group of 12 people in the second story of a home and unable to evacuate to the school, Zidek said. A Donlin Gold helicopter was nearby and rescued three of the people before the National Guard arrived, he said, and the others were able to reach a boat as the water began to recede. No one was injured, but Zidek said one person was transported to Bethel because they did not have medications that they needed.
A number of homes were damaged by water or by large icebergs crashing into the buildings. Zidek said he did not immediately have an estimate of how many homes were damaged. It didn’t appear that any homes had been lifted from their foundations, but waters reached the second story of many, Ottenweller said.
The water level was up to 5 feet higher than it had reached in 2011, Ottenweller said. That year marked the most extreme flooding Crooked Creek had seen in recent decades, he said.
Power was restored by Monday and Zidek said the village had received water and food from Donlin Gold.