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HomeIndigenous NewsIce jams cause flooding on mighty Kuskokwim River in Alaska

Ice jams cause flooding on mighty Kuskokwim River in Alaska

Joaqlin Estus

Last week a chunk of ice, an estimated 13 miles long and hundreds of feet across, got jammed as it floated down the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. Water piled up behind it and overflowed the riverbanks, spilling out onto the tundra, up tributaries, and into half a dozen communities on the river.

Even as the ice jam moved downriver it continued to flood villages. Hydrologist Dave Streubel with the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center told the Anchorage Daily News water levels reached their highest point since 2005 in Bethel, a hub community of 6,000. People were told to avoid the riverfront for safety reasons. The Anchorage Daily News reports “about a foot of standing water was reported around a number of houses in two subdivisions Friday,” according to City Clerk Lori Strickler. Several gravel and dirt roads were also washed out. People got around by wading through water or in boats.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Mike Ottenweller told ICT that “anecdotal reports that we’ve had from the teams that are on the ground is that Kwethluk probably saw the most significant water rises and probably had the most inundation in terms of any kind of property or damage. They still remain under a flood warning (Tuesday) because of the high water, and it has not come down as quickly as it has in say, Napakiak or Bethel.”

David Epchook, Yup’ik, is the acting Incident commander in Kwethluk, a village of almost 800. He said at its peak, “most of the houses were surrounded and we had some gravel roads washed out making vehicle travel on those really dangerous. So we had to close down the road to the airport until Sunday afternoon around 3:00 p.m.” Passengers who arrived on incoming flights were carried to their homes via boat. Water service was also shut down temporarily due to a severed line.

Further downriver, in Napaskiak, City Administrator Joseph Amik, Yup’ik, said some areas were under as much as three feet of water. “We did see some flooding here, which covered 90 percent of the village. And there was some boardwalk damage and some erosion in certain areas.” Parts of the one road in Napaskiak, from the airport into town, were washed out. Amik said out of the village of 500, a handful of residents went to the school for safety.

Reports as to the extent of damage are still trickling in as the ice has finally melted to the point water is flowing around and through it. Friday Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration in response to the flooding. The declaration opens the door for funding for individual assistance and cost-reimbursement for communities.

“Alaska is so unique with this ice jam flooding that we don’t really experience anywhere else in the United States,” Jeremy Zidek, Public Information Officer for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told ICT. “You hear of an ice jam and you think about it as a localized event. But I talked to a hydrologist and he reported seeing an ice jam last year on the Yukon that was bank-to-bank ice on that part of the river” and 23 miles long.

Officials are able to keep villagers informed thanks to a 40-year-old institution, Riverwatch, when small teams fly by plane “low and slow” over the front of the breakup, Zidek said.

River Watch teams are made up of one emergency management specialist from the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, one hydrologist from the National Weather Service River Forecast Center, and a pilot that knows the river really well.

“We often augment that team with locals from communities that are really aware of where the problem areas in the river are. And this is twofold to get that information from those people that live in the area. And also when we return them to a community, they can communicate that to the other folks there and let them know what’s going on,” Zidek said.

Zidek said over the years officials have used a number of different techniques to try and prevent the ice jams and flooding that can cause catastrophic damage. They tried “drilling a bunch of holes in the ice and problem areas, even using crop dusting equipment to put dark sand on the river hoping that the solar heat on that black sand would create channels in the river so that we wouldn’t have problem areas anymore. But those just really proved ineffective.

“The most effective thing to do is provide people early alert and warning and then be there on hand when they have issues,” Zidek said. “So we can communicate back to the Division of Home Security and Emergency Management and other state agencies, other responders, and other non-government agencies who can help them provide assistance with their response effort.

“The reason that River Watch and the mission of River Watch is so important is to get out there and give communities that alert and warning, let them know what the river conditions are so they can take actions to protect themselves and protect their property,” Zidek said.

Communities affected by the flooding include Bethel, Oscarville, Napaskiak, Napakiak, Kwethluk, Eek, Tuntutuliak and Tuluksak.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Mike Ottenweller told ICT, “we’re keeping an eye on the lower Yukon now…we’re hoping for a quiet year up there, a continuation of a quiet year.”

ICT, a nonprofit and multimedia news enterprise, is a spacious channel that serves Indigenous communities with news, entertainment, and opinion. Support ICT for as little as $10.

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