April 15 Coronavirus Update: Red Devil Flooding And COVID-19

The frozen Kuskokwim River in front of Red Devil.
Credit Rebecca Wilmarth

The village of Red Devil is trying to respond to two threats at once this spring: river breakup and COVID-19.  

Rebecca Wilmarth, a resident of the tiny community, has already been hit by one of them. She lost her job when RavnAir stopped flying. Ravn Air Group declared bankruptcy when their passenger business dropped off after the state hunkered down to slow the spread of the pandemic.

“It was so abrupt and completely unexpected when they called. I didn’t even know what to think,” said Wilmarth.

Wilmarth is not out of work completely, though. She also does community outreach for The Kuskokwim Corporation and Donlin Gold.

Red Devil, located upstream from Bethel on the Kuskokwim River, does not have a local government, so it simply follows state mandates. While there is no way the people in Red Devil can keep others out, Wilmarth hopes that people will simply do the right thing to protect remote communities like hers.

“And the airlines also need to do the right thing and not allow people to travel in and out of rural Alaska. It’s kind of a moral question,” Wilmarth said. “We had a couple of people that actually wanted to come in, and they did not. So that was good on them for staying in [Anchorage]. They had just traveled from Hawaii, so they are staying in [Anchorage] for the 14-day period. We don’t have the authority to control who comes in and out, and we just ask that everyone does what’s morally right.”

Meanwhile, she and others are doing what they have always done to prepare for spring floods and breakup: they are cleaning up their yards, stocking up on supplies, getting their boats ready, and cleaning containers for drinking water. The concern is what will happen if they need to evacuate and someone in the village is sick with COVID-19. How can they maintain social distance and get everyone to higher ground safely?

“I just hope it doesn’t get to that point, because that’s a real concern,” said Wilmarth.

During the region’s emergency planning meeting this week, some people suggested blowing up ice jams to protect communities upstream. Wilmarth likes that idea.

“People are suggesting we bomb the river. I would be in support of that. My mom said that they used to do that. I’ve never seen it happen, but I would like to. Sounds kind of dramatic, but I think it’s a lot less dramatic than what a really bad situation might look like.”

State officials in the emergency meeting opposed blowing up ice jams.