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Science and Environment

Coffee@KYUK May 1: Prepare For Flooding Along Kuskokwim

An ice jam below Napaimute on April 30, 2020.
Alaska State Troopers

The flooding near Napaimute has devastated most of the cabins at the seasonal village site. The National Weather Service began flying their River Watch crew along the Kuskokwim River this week to monitor break up conditions. Hydrologist Celine Van Breukelen shared her observations from April 30.

“When we flew over on [April 30], the runway was completely underwater," Van Breukelen said. "They have a grader on the runway apron, and only the cab of the grader was visible. The houses in Napaimute, it seems like most of them were dry, but just barely. There were still other buildings that were a little bit higher that people can evacuate to if they need to. The seasonal cabins that are down close to the riverbank, they’re just a little downstream of Napaimute, those are flooded and knocked off their foundations because sheets of ice came in from the river and knocked the house back into the woods. Houses are, in some cases, on their side, or in some cases difficult to see exactly where they went.”

The National Weather Service issued a flood warning for Napaimute, Aniak, and Kalskag. Van Breukelen said that indications are that there is more water coming. This is a “phenomenal” year, Van Breukelen says, and she expects to keep extending the flood watch throughout the season until breakup is over.

“Last night [April 30] there was a run of ice that came by the Red Devil, Stony, Sleetmute area,” Van Breukelen said. “I believe it caused water levels to rise at Sleetmute another 3 feet. We know there is still in-place ice upstream of Stony River. Between Stony River and McGrath, I know that the ice in McGrath was holding yesterday. Generally, it lets go a little later than the middle section of the Kuskokwim, which is breaking up.”

Van Breukelen said that most of the low-lying snow has melted along the river, but snowpack remains in the mountains. The National Weather Service recorded twice the average snowfall in the mountains surrounding the headwaters. Van Breukelen expects that the snow will keep melting into summer.

“There is going to be more meltwater as we have warmer and warmer temperatures this year, into the middle of June that there’s still a lot more snow to melt,” she said.

Van Breukelen said that this year, more than ever, people need to prepare for the worst. Even if their home is above the normal flood plain, she advises being prepared to move to higher ground.

“In my almost a decade of doing this, I haven’t seen this much water.” Van Breukelen said. “Really put some time and effort to think about what you are going to do as a community to prepare for this much water, and also and as an individual.”

When in flight, River Watch will be available on VHF radio channel 68 on the lower river and channel 10 on the upper river. They plan to fly through the weekend.                                          

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