State warns Kuskokwim communities to prepare for flooding

The Kuskokwim River in front of Bethel on December 21, 2017. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The state is warning residents of Kuskokwim River communities that a rapidly melting snowpack could cause severe flooding in the area.

On Monday, more than 50 people gathered on a teleconference to share thoughts, concerns, and observations about how breakup is progressing along the Kuskokwim River. National Weather Service hydrologist Celine Van Breukelen said a heavy snowpack along the river makes flooding likely this year.

“I’m especially concerned about the lower villages,” Van Breukelen said, referring to the tundra villages along the Johnson River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim.

Van Breukelen is worried about the tundra becoming saturated with snowmelt, and the water not having anywhere to drain. Last year, the tundra village of Nunapitchuk experienced its worst flooding in years and community leaders declared a state of emergency. Other tundra villages flooded as well, accelerating erosion and permafrost degradation in the area.

Van Breukelen said a snow station in Aniak is measuring the most snow ever recorded since it was installed in 2013. On April 1, the snow measured 33 inches, compared to 21 inches last year. Farther upriver in McGrath, the snowpack is similar to last year’s, measuring 41 inches this year, compared to 44 inches the year before.

Residents along the river said snow in their areas was melting fast, with several feet still remaining. Some people also said travel along the river had dropped significantly, with most travel occurring in the early morning following the night’s freeze-up. Overflow also stretched along the river.

Red Devil resident Rebecca Wilmarth said most of the ice near her community has turned slushy.

“The augur just went through without very much effort involved,” Wilmarth said, describing a recent ice fishing trip.

She said the ice conditions look similar to years when it melted in place.

Native Village of Napaimute Director of Operations Mark Leary helped measure ice thickness along the lower river throughout the winter. He said the ice mostly measures below average thickness because of the insulating snow. Thinner ice could reduce the likelihood of ice jams.

An exception is the river ice from Akiak, downriver to the upper end of Kuskokwak Slough. Leary said ice in that area measured about 4 feet in January and continued to grow. He’s concerned that thick section might jam during breakup.

“That section might be worth keeping an eye on. It might have a hard time moving out,” Leary said.

Emergency Management Specialist Desiree Chambers, with the State Emergency Operations Center, encouraged Kuskokwim communities to prepare for flooding by reviewing their emergency response plans.

“I’m encouraging communities to look at their plans, and the numbers, and their points of contact, and put in any updates that are needed,” Chambers said.

She also encouraged communities to prepare evacuation sites, such as schools, in case people need to retreat and to begin reaching out to people who would need to be evacuated if water levels rise.

“We would encourage any evacuation that needs to be done, or movement out of a flood area, to be kept as local as possible,” Chambers said.

If a community needs to evacuate out of the local area, Chambers said the state will help communities prepare a plan for how to do that.

Sgt. First Class Joe Sallaffie with the Alaska Army National Guard said the Bethel armory could serve as a regional evacuation site. Under pandemic protocols, the building could house 60 to 75 people in cots spaced 6 feet apart.

Currently, the National Guard does not have plans to station a Black Hawk helicopter in Bethel during breakup.

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