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River ice jam that led to Alaska flooding churns

Posted: May 30, 2013 - 12:20am
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In this May 27, 2013 photo released by the National Weather Service, ice and water are shown flooding homes and other buildings in Galena, Alaska. Several hundred people are estimated to have fled the community of Galena in Alaska's interior, where a river ice jam has caused major flooding, sending water washing over roads and submerging buildings. (AP Photo/National Weather Service, Ed Plumb)  Ed Plumb
Ed Plumb
In this May 27, 2013 photo released by the National Weather Service, ice and water are shown flooding homes and other buildings in Galena, Alaska. Several hundred people are estimated to have fled the community of Galena in Alaska's interior, where a river ice jam has caused major flooding, sending water washing over roads and submerging buildings. (AP Photo/National Weather Service, Ed Plumb)

ANCHORAGE — A colossal river ice jam that caused major flooding in a remote Alaska town was starting to churn Wednesday as water finally chewed ice chunks away from the stubborn, frozen mass after most of the residents were forced to flee from the rising water.

An aerial survey Wednesday afternoon revealed chunks of ice have broken off at the front of the 30-mile ice jam on the Yukon River, National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb said. That means the jam will move soon and waters will begin to recede in the waterlogged town of Galena, 20 miles upriver.

The flooding lifted homes off foundations and has threatened to break a dike protecting the airport, virtually the only dry spot left in the community of 500 where floodwaters washed out roads and submerged homes. There are no reports of injuries.

The National Guard flew 32 more people and 19 dogs to Fairbanks Tuesday night. Other residents were evacuated earlier.

Kevin Ray, a state worker who moved to Galena four months ago, was among the human evacuees who flew in on a Guard C-130 transport plane to Fairbanks, 270 miles east of Galena. Ray said the flight was noisy, with the constant barking of frightened dogs.

In Galena, Ray’s office is gone. His apartment and all his possessions are under water.

“So basically, I’m kind of a homeless guy,” Ray, 65, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday from an American Red Cross shelter set up at a local church. “I never thought I’d be a victim. But hey, life is life.”

Now that the water is trying to push through the jam, conditions could change quickly. When the jam breaks, the downriver community of Koyukuk will be at risk of flooding.

In an earlier flight Wednesday, Plumb said, the ice was locked firmly in place, despite 80 degree temperatures. The hot weather is expected to last a couple days before cooling slightly.

In Galena, water went over low areas of the dike Tuesday, then the water level fell. With the threat of water topping the dike again, the state took the step of bringing in military aircraft to aid in the evacuations of those who wanted to leave. State emergency spokesman Jeremy Zidek said 76 residents chose to stay in a former Air Force barracks.

The water was rising again Wednesday morning close to the edge of the dike, which protects the runway and some buildings including former barracks, then levels fluctuated without rising more, Plumb said. Outside the dike, everything has been hit by flooding, according to Plumb, who has worked for the weather service for 13 years.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “And I don’t think these people here (have) either. The ice jam is amazing.”

The damage has left the town without power, fresh water and cell phone reception. When the ice jam knocked out the bridge leading to the airport, evacuees had to be taken there by boat or helicopter, according to Ray, who said the flooding began with a trickle Sunday. In a place where spring flooding is nothing new, many homes are built on stilts, but the fast rising water reached them, too.

The disaster has left people feeling traumatized and vulnerable, Ray said.

“We didn’t have any idea how vast the flood was going to be,” he said.

Zidek said the damage is being assessed and a disaster policy cabinet will forward recommendations to Gov. Sean Parnell, who visited the area Tuesday. Recommendations are likely to include issuing a disaster declaration.

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