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Floodwaters drop after Alaska river ice jam breaks

Posted: May 31, 2013 - 12:04am
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In this May 28, 2013 photo, the town of Galena, Alaska is flooded by the Yukon River during the breakup of winter ice. 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/Alaska National Guard, Sgt. Edward Eagerton)  Edward Eagerton
Edward Eagerton
In this May 28, 2013 photo, the town of Galena, Alaska is flooded by the Yukon River during the breakup of winter ice. 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/Alaska National Guard, Sgt. Edward Eagerton)

ANCHORAGE — An ice-clogged river in Alaska’s interior that submerged much of a remote town was flowing again Thursday, sparing another nervous community in its path.

Floodwaters were dropping in Galena after the 30-mile ice jam downriver on the Yukon River broke and began moving Wednesday evening, emergency responders said.

Residents in the tiny village of Koyukuk, 13 miles downriver of the jam, had been bracing to be hit by a wall of flooding next. But lifelong resident Roy Nelson said that ice chunks in the Yukon River are flowing quickly past the community of 95.

“We just lucked out,” Nelson said. “So far, it looks like we might be all right.”

National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb said the river has risen in Koyukuk, 360 miles northwest of Anchorage, but may not flood. So far, the water has not overflowed its banks, said Marie Dayton, a member of the Koyukuk city council.

But villagers spent days preparing for the worst in the flood-prone area, where homes are built on stilts. They parked boats and rafts outside their homes. They moved machinery and vehicles to the airport, which is on higher ground. They hoped to escape the fate of Galena, where floodwaters lifted homes off foundations, buried cars and led to most of the community of 500 being evacuated.

“Nobody was resting,” Dayton said Thursday afternoon. “We slept all day today.”

In Galena, the breaking of the ice jam was like opening a drain in a bathtub. But now comes the hard work of recovering and rebuilding. The falling floodwaters have left pools in lower areas and deposited big chunks of ice everywhere, including dumping them on already damaged roads. That makes travel difficult, Plumb said.

The sewage lagoon was completely submerged, prompting state emergency managers to call for experts to gauge contamination. The flood, which began Sunday, threatened to breach a dike protecting the airport, virtually the only dry spot that was left in the community. Tanks of heating fuel outside homes floated up and spilled. Power is out and so are phone lines and working bathrooms. Some houses were flooded to the roofs.

“It’s going to be a long time for the community to get back to where it was,” Plumb said.

No one was injured, but many are traumatized. At least 15 homes have been destroyed, estimates March Running, among the few hundred residents who were evacuated to other communities, some bringing their dogs with them. Running wanted to stay in Galena, but was urged to leave because of health issues, including diabetes. Before leaving for Fairbanks 270 miles to the east, Running saw a house sitting on top of a pickup truck, she said.

Like many other Galena residents, Runner plans to return and help rebuild after the flooding many say ranks among the worst in the area. To those who ask why anyone would want to go back to a place that floods, she said this was not the average spring flood.

And residents want to go back for the same reason people who live in places hit by tornadoes or hurricanes rebuild there.

“This is their home,” Runner said. “Why are they going to leave it?”

State emergency management spokesman Jeremy Zidek said the damage in Galena is being assessed. Gov. Sean Parnell plans to issue a state disaster declaration for Galena and any other communities affected by the Yukon River flooding, Parnell’s spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said. A declaration would activate state disaster recovery funds.

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