EAGLE - An ice jam near Eagle that caused heavy flooding and knocked several buildings off their foundations has broken, allowing the swollen Yukon River to recede, authorities said.
The floodwaters receded near Eagle by about 20 feet early Thursday from peak levels, observers estimated. The Yukon's flood levels at Eagle, about 200 miles east of Fairbanks, was 34 feet.
"The main part of Eagle town and some of the roads are starting to drain out," National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb said Thursday.
The flood and ice jacked buildings from foundations and uprooted stout trees before the ice broke apart. The surge drove ice well above a steel retaining wall designed to protect downtown's Front Street.
Residents gathered Wednesday night at the Eagle Community School for a meeting but regrouped on a bluff overlooking the river when they heard the jam broke.
"Suddenly, when somebody announced the ice was moving for the first time in two days, everyone jumped," said Chris Allan, an historian with the National Park Service.
Satellite dishes and pallets littered muddy dirt streets near the waterfront, scattered among boulders of ice. Icebergs the size of small boats drifted by in the current.
At least four buildings were knocked off their foundations. Two of them, an old log cabin used as a storage shed and an old sauna, were carried down the river.
Ice chunks, some the size of houses, pushed out of the riverbank and damaged buildings along Front Street. Officials say some can't be salvaged.
Residents said Eagle will never be quite the same.
Missing are trees on the once-densely wooded Belle Island, denuded by raging water and ice. The historic customs house, now a museum, is askew at the seams of two additions, the contents a jumbled mess as seen through jagged glass window remnants.
"There's no cafe, no store, there's no doctor per se," Gary Millard said, watching the day break above the Border Hills framing the Yukon.
"We have no clinic," added his wife, Ann Millard.
"Destroyed," he said.
There also has been flooding downstream in the village of Circle, including reports of 20 inches of water in one store. Water also was receding in Circle and river ice was moving past the village, but the community was expected to see more water.
"There is going to be more water coming down with the release at Eagle, that 20-foot drop, it's going to send a surge of water down river and coming toward Circle," he said.
Gov. Sarah Palin, who on Wednesday issued a disaster declaration for areas of interior Alaska, canceled weekend meetings and appearances on the East Coast to survey hard-hit communities.
Palin's disaster declaration includes the drainages of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Kobus and Susitna rivers. It allows greater coordination between state agencies, and will provide easier access to state disaster relief funds and receipt of federal funds if there is a federal disaster declaration.
The Alaska Division of Homeland Security has set up a command center in the school, where satellite imagery maps are coiled on grade-school sized tables.
With water levels down, emergency workers will focus on accounting for Eagle residents and, as best they can, for people living at isolated homesteads scattered for miles along the Yukon River banks, incident commander Claude Denver said. He is also manager of the State Emergency Coordination Center.
National Park Service staff assigned to Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve were the first responders in Eagle.
James Savage with the park service said a team delivered two helicopter loads of water and food to the old Eagle Village on Tuesday, and hauled in more water, fuel and supplies on an ATV trail Wednesday.
A vehicle road linking the city and the village is choked - shut by shelf ice.
Roughly 35 people are living at the village, most of them on higher ground at a new enclave. A few remained at the old village on the river bank, and several lost their homes, Savage said. No injuries were reported.
"The old village is pretty damaged," he said. "The new village, where most people live, is mostly dry and intact."
With the state command center now established, Savage said Park Service crews will helicopter over the preserve to assess damage to park cabins and a few private holdings.
One family contacted Tuesday refused to evacuate but was urged to seek higher ground. Crews will check in on them, as well as on several families living adjacent to the park, Savage said.
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