Russian Mission’s airport sits about 30 feet above the Yukon River, low enough that this spring’s destructive winter ice jam flooding inundated the airstrip that provides a crucial connection to the outside world.
In mid-May, floods described as historic in Circle on the Yukon River and Crooked Creek on the Kuskokwim River destroyed homes and caused major damage. As ice moved downriver, numerous places experienced destructive flooding including Fort Yukon, Stevens Village, Emmonak and Nunam Iqua on the Yukon and Kwethluk on the Kuskokwim.
Airstrips and roads sustained some damage in other villages, but Russian Mission’s airport was the only one officially closed for much of this week, essentially stranding about 400 residents without fresh food, mail, or a way in or out.
The airport partly reopened Thursday afternoon, with no lights until the water totally recedes, state officials say.
Last week, after the 3,600-foot gravel runway had been flooded for three days and eight or nine homes had been evacuated, state emergency officials helped coordinate an Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter mission at the request of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., the Bethel-based tribal health organization for the region.
The helicopter delivered a medical provider and supplies, according to a state update. It picked up “medically fragile individuals” — including one of Basil Larson’s relations, who is pregnant — and brought them to Bethel.
People in Russian Mission are running low on groceries and some had to reschedule medical appointments, Larson said by phone Wednesday. Now in his late 30s, he grew up in the village.
“Everybody’s waiting on their mail and some freight. Freight is the big thing, food,” he said. “There’s been no fresh fruit, no fresh meat, no milk. That’s the thing. Feed the babies.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has declared a disaster for flood-damaged regions including the Northwest Arctic Borough and communities along the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Copper rivers.
State disaster officials this week said they were fielding reports of runways affected by floods from Circle, Fort Yukon, Crooked Creek and Kalskag. Some communities have damaged airport access roads but undamaged runways.
The damage was worse at Russian Mission because most other airports were built at higher elevations so floodwaters didn’t cover them as extensively, officials say.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is responsible for evaluating repairs in flood-damaged areas. Officials with that agency say a crew was expected to arrive in the Yukon River village Thursday to evaluate the damage.
Much of the fine material that makes up the surface is gone, said transportation department spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy. So it’s likely repair crews will have to barge in replacement material from Marshall, another Yukon River village.
The state’s airport system is “critical to all of these communities, so it’s critical for us to get out there as soon as possible to get it open as quickly as we can,” McCarthy said.
Water levels remained high Thursday on the Lower Yukon, with a National Weather Service advisory in place through Saturday afternoon for snowmelt and residual ice dam flooding on the lower river and on tributaries from Grayling downstream to the delta as far as Nunam Iqua and Kotlik.
In Russian Mission, these aren’t the worst spring floods Larson has seen — 2009 was worse — but the power and extent of breakup was far more extreme than usual.
“There was chunks of earth floating by with the ice, not only little bit of trees but trees, mud, roots, everything,” he said. “And they were still standing upright.”
By Thursday morning, Larson wrote in an update on his Facebook page, the Yukon was down and holding level with the south bank, though he expected the water to rise and fall again before settling for good.
He was eager to get the runway open, bringing freight, mail, food, trips for delayed medical appointments — “getting back in business,” he said. “All that good stuff that goes with traveling.”