Ice is melting in the Y-K Delta. With abnormally high snowfall during one of the coldest winters in years, people are expecting more water and more flooding than usual this spring. Some Bethel residents are already seeing high water levels around their homes, and city administration is planning for the scenario where people need to evacuate.
Walter Betz lives on Osage Avenue between Pinky’s Park and Fili’s Pizza. Last weekend, he says that his house was hit with water from all directions. Melting snow from Tundra Ridge, the slough, and the area above the fitness center all flowed into his yard.
“It was just coming right through there like a river,” Betz said. “The deepest part of my house, it was five, maybe 5-feet deep.”
Betz says that the water didn’t make it into his house, but he is concerned that there may be more water coming and he wants to make sure that the city’s culverts and drains are working properly.
“We’ve heard of those issues,” said Bethel’s new city manager, Vincenzo “Vinny” Corazza, “and public works is running around ragged trying to fix those.”
The water from the initial snow melt inside the city may just be a sign of what’s to come. Many people are preparing for flooding caused by ice jams as the Kuskokwim River breaks up. The city is preparing for the worst case scenario: people having to evacuate their homes. Corazza says that those preparations are more complicated than usual this year.
“It’s not a regular flooding situation,” Corazza said. “It’s a flooding on top of a pandemic.”
Corazza says that with the COVID-19 pandemic, moving people to a gym or communal space is a last resort. The first option, if homes get flooded, is to go stay at a house that isn’t flooded.
“We are in COVID; we are in a pandemic, so shelter in place. If you have relatives or friends in town that could take you in, you could shelter in place with them until [the water at] your house recedes,” Corazza said.
He says that option two is putting evacuated families in hotel rooms in Bethel, but hotel rooms are also serving another purpose.
“Right now we have 80-odd hotel rooms that we’re basically trying to avoid so that YKHC has those available for any kind of quarantine, any kind of COVID patients,” Corazza said.
He said that the city would only use half of the available hotel rooms for flood evacuees, leaving the remaining rooms for COVID-19 quarantine patients.
The final resort will be to house people in communal spaces. Bethel’s grant manager, John Sargent, who’s been working at the city’s emergency operations center, said that the city is looking into the YK Fitness Center, school buildings, the ONC multipurpose building, and the Alaska Army National Guard Armory as possible evacuation sites. Corazza said that the city would space out cots 10 feet apart, hand out face masks and hand sanitizer, and encourage people to practice social distancing.
Bethel Mayor Perry Barr, also a member of the Civil Air Patrol, said that the organization is going to begin flying up and down the Kuskokwim River next week to survey the conditions.
“There’s a lot of snow melt, and a lot of melting going on,” Barr said.
He says that the patrol will be looking for how much water is coming down the river so that people can know what to expect.