One of Alaska's ice-clogged rivers has washed over a small Native community about 275 miles west of Anchorage. Evacuations began Monday in Crooked Creek after floodwaters hit the small community, located where the creek for which it is named meets a bend in Kuskokwim River, one of Alaska's two biggest waterways.
The ninth largest river in North America, the Kusko pulses out of the interior mountains of the state on a rush to the Bering Sea.
"We have heard from the locals that it is the highest (flood) they have memory of," said Jeremy Zidek, a public information officer with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The big thaw that happens this time of year in Alaska always has the potential to be problematic. When spring hits the north, it hits hard and fast. The state rockets from winter to summer with little regard for the more subtle transitions between seasons to which people in the Lower 48 states may be accustomed. The sun rises noticeably higher each day, and on the earth below, plant life, once activated, quickly unfurls its fast-growing greenery to soak up the rays. In the rivers, the temperature-driven collision between water's shift from solid to liquid can be a destructive mix.
In 2009, ice chunks and flooding from the Yukon River, which enters from Canada and cuts westward across the heart of the state ravaged the community of Eagle. Truck-sized ice, powered by a swift swell of backed-up water that had finally released, smashed through homes and businesses, and many people lost everything they had.
This year break up on the Yukon River, the state's largest river, appears to be moving along more smoothly. But conditions on the Kuskokwim in southwestern corner of the state are trickier. Crooked Creek appears to be 2011's first casualty of the haphazard misfortune rivers inevitably bring.
According to the search and rescue team for the city of Bethel, a regional hub 140 miles from Crooked Creek, river water rose 30 feet, pushed homes off of foundations and caused the community to lose power.
By late afternoon Tuesday, 53 people had been evacuated, 84 had stayed behind, and the water had slowly started to recede, according to Zidek. The Red Cross, which is helping displaced villagers, said most left so quickly they had no time to pack.
As coincidence would have it, the community that got its start in the early 1900s as a permanent settlement in the shadow of the gold rush era, turned to a nearby gold mine for help when the situation got bad Monday. Personnel with the Donlin Creek Gold Mine used a helicopter to airlift fleeing residents to the mine's operation center, 10 miles away. The Alaska State Troopers also helped, swooping in with a Cessna airplane to help ferry passengers.
About 70 percent of the homes in Crooked Creek are estimated to have flooded, Zidek said, but it's too early to know how much damage was done. As the water level goes down and people come back, crews will be on hand to help returning villagers look things over and inventory any losses, he said.
Emergency personnel are also working to build a good communication network so that flood refugees and the remaining village residents can talk to each other and get information out to emergency workers outside.
For now, there's not much to do but wait for conditions to improve, and keep close watch on other potential trouble spots downstream.
"It's hard to say when this ice jam will release. The temperatures have been somewhat cool," Zidek said, explaining that the cool temperatures can keep water levels in the river low. Higher water helps break up ice jams and move them downstream.
Upriver things look pretty good, Zidek said. But his teams have some concerns about the potential for flooding fifty miles downstream in Aniak. Communities further downriver -- near and below Kalskag -- look to be in the clear, he said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com