Crooked Creek struggles to rebuild after historic breakup flooding

An aerial view of Crooked Creek along the Kuskokwim River. (Kyle Van Perseum/Alaska-Pacific Forecast Center)

As the fishing season on the Kuskokwim River kicks off, many communities are still reeling from the effects of spring breakup flooding.

This is especially true in the upper Kuskokwim community of Crooked Creek, where in mid-May residents found themselves on the wrong side of a 15-mile-long ice jam that inundated homes, led to a significant loss of stored food, and washed away critical fishing gear. For now, Crooked Creek villagers still have a long way to go to get back on their feet.

Located about 200 miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel, Crooked Creek is no stranger to severe breakup flooding. In 2011, the village of fewer than 100 people saw what was characterized as a 100-year flood: so severe that it only had a 1% chance of occurring in any given year.

This year’s flooding was even worse, according to Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center meteorologist Mike Ottenweller.

“We estimate that the flood exceeded the 2011 floods by approximately 4 to 5 feet,” Ottenweller said.

Residents only had about 18 hours to brace for the deluge.

“That rise, 16 feet, actually happened pretty much from Saturday afternoon into Sunday morning,” Ottenweller said. “Because of the conditions with the ice, and also the colder than normal temperatures and the higher than normal snowpack through the spring, all those things came together to create this pretty significant, potentially historic event.”

Amid a state natural disaster declaration, an alphabet soup of organizations came to the aid of the community including the American Red Cross, Alaska Organized Militia, Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse, Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP), and Donlin Gold.

While on-site responders have largely departed, the state will continue to coordinate efforts to rebuild Crooked Creek throughout the summer. Severe damage and power outages have cost the village a large percentage of its stored subsistence foods.

“We’ve been providing a lot of shelf-stable foods to people, but those aren’t the traditional foods that people in that area prefer,” Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said. “And we understand that it’s a hardship that they can’t eat these foods that they gathered themselves from their area.”

Crooked Creek Tribal President Julia Zaukar has been working around the clock to address the community’s needs.

“The gentlemen who didn’t lose any boats, before the beaver season ended they went out and did beaver hunting so they could supply the food for the shelter. And the families who were on higher ground donated moose meat and fish, but that is all running low now,” Zaukar said. “And so we’re trying to make good with what we have. We’re doing okay, but it’s just very, very stressful.”

Zaukar said that the flood had washed away much of the community’s fishing gear, including boats, dip nets, and three fish wheels. She called into a recent Kuskokwim River salmon management meeting to plead with state fisheries managers to immediately open the river to driftnet fishing to replenish community food stores. This came during a five-day period known as a front-end closure intended to protect king and chum salmon stocks. But Zaukar said that she couldn’t see the justification.

“For us to be closed right now it’s very hard because we need the fish more now to help feed the community and the sheefish and the white fish are there. There’s no salmon this far up,” Zaukar said. “And we would be able to use that fish for the main course of the meals instead of having to try and gather food from, like, Anchorage, you know, different organizations that are helping us.”

Zaukar praised the help coming from around the state to Crooked Creek, but said that she was hopeful that a federal disaster declaration would come and bring additional support.

“Families are living in the school gym. Thank goodness for the Kuspuk School District for allowing us to use it as a shelter feeding station,” Zaukar said. “And we do have three tents set up right now. We’re waiting for AVCP to send more tents because families are living with families. And, you know, that’s pretty rough right now. Thank goodness we did not lose anybody to the flood.”

As Crooked Creek rebuilds, severely affected communities over on the Yukon River are doing the same. According to Zidek there has been no shortage of challenges offered up by Mother Nature.

“We’ve had a very busy couple years. In 2022 we had 14 state-declared disasters and six federal,” Zidek said. “If we look back to 1978 we average about five disasters per year. So 14 is really a big bump for us.”

KYUK - Bethel

KYUK is our partner station in Bethel. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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