On Wednesday May 6th, 2009, Governor Sarah Palin issued a disaster declaration for areas of Interior Alaska affected by flooding. Area covered includes the drainages of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Kobuk and Susitna rivers. A National Weather Service list of current flood watches and advisories for Interior Alaska is available HERE (link also posted on my sidebar)
The verbal declaration cuts red tape and allows greater coordination between state agencies. It also will provide easier access to state disaster relief funds and receipt of federal funds if there is a federal disaster declaration. But Governor Palin says a formal written declaration will be issued when spring flooding is over and ice is free from rivers. That way, the total number of people affected and the total damages can be assessed by state and local governments.
The community of Eagle, located on the upper Yukon River (see map HERE), has been hit exceptionally hard. On Tuesday, the Yukon River spilled over its banks, inundated the old part of Eagle Village, breached a retaining wall, and spilled into parts of the city. Ice chunks, some the size of houses, which were pushed out of the river bank by the floodwaters, damaged buildings along the city's Front Street, knocking several off their foundations. Officials say many others can't be salvaged. An estimated 10 homes in Eagle were damaged or destroyed and an estimated 30 of the area's 125 residents are homeless. View a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner photo gallery HERE. Read another News-Miner story HERE. KTUU Channel 2 news video embedded below:
A stubborn ice jam on the Yukon River just below Eagle is the culprit, and is keeping water levels well above the river banks. And water levels have fallen only slightly since Tuesday in the community about 200 miles east of Fairbanks. As of 10 P.M. Wednesday night, the river has risen another three feet and has flooded more homes on Front Street. And the threat is spreading downstream to the west. Residents of Circle, downstream of Eagle, have been warned of possible flooding before Saturday. Water levels there are starting to rise, and river ice has started to lift and shift. A large volume of water is expected to move down the river toward Circle when the ice jam downstream from Eagle releases, making Circle vulnerable to what could be the worst flooding in its recent history. And there's also been a report of rising water levels farther downstream, at Fort Yukon. So it's an areawide problem.
Area residents unaffected by the flooding have been quick to open their hearts - and their wallets. As river levels on the Chena River began to recede, and the flood threat to Fairbanks abated, Fairbanks residents sent donations to flood victims in the village of Eagle - so many that Everts Air Alaska asked that people hold off with more donations until further notice. As of Wednesday afternoon, Everts had received more than 7,000 pounds of donations.
Why was Eagle hit so hard? Some flooding along Interior rivers is a ritual springtime occurrence during breakup. But exceptionally warm weather, on top of a cooler-than-normal early April, turned millions of acres of above-average snowpack to liquid within a few days. The National Weather Service warned that this could be a bad year for flooding if the weather played out in this fashion. All the water might have fit through the Yukon River canyon, if it hadn’t been mixed with thousands upon thousands of acres of still-firm river ice. That ice jammed in the bends somewhere below Eagle and held, despite an unfathomable head of pressure behind it. Result - disaster. Nothing you can really do about it. The National Weather Service actually conducts flights along these rivers, and when they see an ice jam, they'll land at the nearest upstream villages and warn them in person so they can take protective measures.
One other area of Interior Alaska of some concern is Kotzebue, which had more than twice its normal annual snowfall this winter. But Tundra Tantrum says that while breakup is messy, there's no major flooding, although trucks are going about pumping out some wet spots which have flood potential. But only half their snow has melted.
These communities may not have as many people as Fargo, North Dakota, but the communities are just as important to those who live there. And one additional complication; unlike Fargo, they're not on the state road system. So everything must be flown in.