Rural Alaska

As floodwaters recede in some rural Alaska communities, others still face risk

Flooding Sleetmute

As floodwaters recede in several riverside communities across Alaska, residents in places like Manley Hot Springs are taking stock of the destruction and mess left behind. Flooding forced many people out of their homes this weekend, and residents say it seems uncertain when it will be safe to return.

Elsewhere in the state, other villages are waiting to see if they’ll face a similar fate.

At least three homes were damaged by flooding in the Southwestern Alaska town of Sleetmute, tribal officials said Tuesday afternoon.

Ice jammed on the Kuskokwim River between Sleetmute and Red Devil on Sunday morning and water quickly began rising in town, said tribal administrator Frank Egnaty.

Water went into at least three homes that were closer to the river and at a lower elevation, he said. The jam released that afternoon and waters receded, but tribal president Ellen Yako said there was still ponding and water surrounding some of the homes. Impacted residents were seeking shelter at the community hall, Egnaty said.

Other homes reported wet insulation, and an update Tuesday from state emergency management officials said there were damaged vehicles and flood-damaged freezers. There was damage to the dump, cemetery, roads and tribal equipment.

Neighboring Red Devil reported damage to the airstrip, roads and one home.

Both villages declared local disasters and assessments of the damage are ongoing, the State Emergency Operation Center said.

An ice jam near Circle, about 160 miles northeast of Fairbanks, was causing concern for officials Monday and Tuesday. Water blocked access to the road near the airport and there was water in other low-lying areas, National Weather Service hydrologist Karen Endres said, but no homes were damaged.

An ice jam formed Monday about 6 miles downstream from Circle and began backing up water into the community, Endres said. With additional ice flowing into the Yukon River from nearby tributaries, Endres said there’s risk for flooding to escalate in Circle if the downstream jam remains in place.

“That’s our concern, really, is that if that still stays in place and the other ice comes and piles up against it, that it will become a major jam instead of a fairly minor one like it is right now,” she said.

Dick Hutchinson, who lives in Circle, said people in town were concerned earlier this season that flooding could be extreme, given how much snow fell during the winter. The snowpack now is at about 200% of an average year, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Circle has seen varied levels of flooding in years past. And Hutchinson said for now, it’s just a waiting game for residents to see when the ice jam releases. He said he isn’t concerned because the waters didn’t appear to be moving in quickly and had only hit the road near the airport as of Tuesday afternoon.

“I see a couple people have all their stuff in the back to their pickups, so they’re ready to roll out of town if things get bad,” Hutchinson said.

In Manley Hot Springs, about 160 miles west of Fairbanks, residents were grappling with the mess and devastation left behind by flooding over the weekend.

Flooding Manley Hot Springs

Many residents left their homes Saturday as water poured into town when ice jammed in the Tanana River.

Resident Kobi Purdy said she and her husband tried to move as many of their belongings to the upper levels of their house when water started rushing into their basement in the early hours of Saturday. But as the water started reaching the top of their basement stairs, Purdy said they knew they needed to leave.

The couple loaded their three children and three dogs into the car and headed to a family member’s cabin, which sat on higher ground. As they left, Purdy said, she took note of all the things now floating in the water covering the town — picnic tables, dog houses, wood, gas cans, chairs — “anything and everything was floating.”

Many in the community have sought shelter at the Manley Hot Springs Resort. The town was without power and cell service for several days, but Zidek said officials were restoring utilities early this week.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference brought in water, food and fuel to help power generators. Chief/Chair Brian Ridley said TCC is available to bring in supplies again if needed.

The ice jam released Sunday and waters began to recede, but Purdy said Tuesday that she doesn’t feel safe returning to her home. Throughout much of the town, she said, septic tanks overflowed and spilled into the water along with rogue fuel tanks.

“It’s nothing but contamination in the water,” she said. “You can smell fuel throughout the whole town and there’s dead fish laying in the middle of the road.”

Flooding Manley Hot Springs

Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Saturday issued a statewide disaster declaration, which allows state agencies to help coordinate disaster response and recovery. The declaration could open up funding for repairs, but Zidek said that will be determined after there have been damage assessments. The American Red Cross and state transportation and environmental conservation departments will be helping with recovery.

Zidek said officials were working Tuesday to better understand the extent of the damage and determine next steps.

But for many residents of Manley Hot Springs, the damage has been devastating. Purdy said she’s spent the last few days crying and is eager to know how and when her home will be assessed, and if it will be safe to return to.

“It’s just more than we can handle,” she said. “We as a community come together and help each other out. We’re very good about handling situations, but this is just too big for us. It’s overwhelming for everybody.”

Ridley with the Tanana Chiefs Conference said cleanup will likely take a long time. He recommended that homeowners try to take photos and document any damage now to aid in future recovery efforts.

Despite the devastation, Ridley noted that more communities still could see flooding this year.

“This is just the start,” he said. “... We’ve only got a couple of villages that are in the clear so far, and we’ve probably got a week and a half, two weeks left of breakup.”

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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