A massive ice jam on the Yukon River sent a flood of water into Galena, Alaska, inundating most of the town and forcing the evacuation of nearly the entire population.
“I think the majority of the folks have been evacuated from the village,” Dave Streubel, National Weather Service hydrologist, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday afternoon as floodwaters approached the last lifeline to the isolated village -- the airport.
Water was backed up 40 to 50 miles behind the large ice jam at a sharp bend in the river known as Bishop Point, 15 miles downriver from Galena, and most of the town was flooded, Streubel said.
“Pretty much the entire village is under water, except for an area around the old Air Force runway, which the Air Force had built a dike around, and the water is up to 6 inches [from] going over the dike and flooding the runway,” he said.
Gov. Sean Parnell flew in to survey the damage Tuesday and called in the Alaska National Guard to help evacuate the estimated 75 residents still in town.
“We expect the flooding to become worse before the waters start to recede,” Parnell, a Republican, said in a statement. “Ensuring the safety of those impacted by the flooding remains my top priority.”
Many towns face annual flooding from spring snowmelt, and the isolated villages of interior Alaska often see complications from the huge ice jams that form on mighty rivers such as the Yukon, Alaska’s longest.
Galena, a mainly Athabaskan Indian village about 270 miles west of Fairbanks by air, has many elevated houses to cope with the frequent floods it faces. But Alaska officials said that this flooding was much worse than in typical years and that the town was without water or power.
“Some of the residents of the village were saying originally that this was the worst flood since 1945, and now they’re saying this is the worst flood ever,” Streubel said.
Problems occurred, he said, as a result of late snowfall followed by speedy warming.
“We had a very cold spring, and in fact we even had snow in that part of the state as of eight days ago. And now in the past four or five days, they’re up close to 70 and 80 degrees. So all that snowmelt has been entering the Yukon River, and it’s just made it that much worse,” Streubel said.
Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said National Guard troops were working with para-rescue crews aboard two large cargo planes and two helicopters to help evacuate those who had earlier declined to leave.
“A lot of Alaskans don’t want to leave. They’d rather just stay and endure it, and make do,” Zidek said. “So there were some folks that didn’t want to evacuate before, and now they do.”
Most of the remaining residents had gathered at two shelters, one at the school and one at the site of an old Air Force barracks.
Like most interior Alaska towns, Galena has no roads leading out of it, and boating is hazardous due to the large chunks of ice swirling in the fast-moving water.
That means keeping the airport open is crucial. Earlier Tuesday, floodwaters began flowing over a low part in the dike around the airport, Zidek said, then retreated about half a foot.
“However, the ice jam that is causing all this problem is still in place downriver,” he said. “The hydrologist in that area has been giving us reports that it’s degrading, but it’s still in place, and it’s still holding.”
The ice jam was expected to give way sometime Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
That will be good news for Galena, but bad news for two smaller villages downriver, Koyukuk and Nulato, Streubel said. “When the ice jam releases, both of those two villages will likely have some flooding, and if the ice that’s still in place near those villages were to jam, the flooding could be moderate to major," he said.
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