State Plans For Possible Flood Evacuations In Villages

Apr 28, 2020

River ice nearing the top of the riverbank in Red Devil April 27.
Credit Ruby Egrass

Villages in the Y-K Delta are preparing for a greater chance of flooding than in recent years, according to the National Weather Service. The state’s emergency operations center is carefully watching the melting ice on rural rivers to see if it will need to intervene, which could include flying entire villages to hubs like Bethel or Anchorage.

Claude Denver, response manager for the state emergency operations center, has been working with villages and the Association of Village Council Presidents to prepare for flooding along the river. He says that communities should already be taking preliminary measures.

“Like moving the Elders that live, normally, on the riverbank to a place further up in town that's better protected,” Denver said.

Denver added that villages should consider putting sandbags around critical infrastructure, like power plants and communications equipment, while vehicles and boats should be moved to higher ground. If water reaches into your home, Denver said that your first option should be to move yourself to higher ground within the village.

“If that is with family members that are in a better portion of town, great,” Denver said.

If too many homes are affected, then he said that the village should prepare a communal space for people to go. 

“Usually, most communities have got some agreement in place with the local school,” Denver said.

He realizes the risks of congregating a large number of people during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he said that people will have to weigh that risk with the flood.

“To protect yourself from being in the water, you're going to have to make some choices,” Denver said.

In those communal spaces, he said that social distancing will be people’s main protection from COVID-19.

“I mean, there's no magic bullets that we have here,” Denver said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also forcing the state to abandon one of its flood evacuation strategies. In previous years, if entire villages flooded, they were encouraged to move to a nearby community. 

“This year is probably not the best year for that because of the COVID virus. And we don't want to introduce people who have the virus to a population that doesn't,” Denver said.

Therefore, in the worst-case scenario, the state has agreements with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and Tanana Chiefs Conference to fly people from villages to hubs like Bethel, Anchorage, or Fairbanks. 

“The only caveat to that strategy is that unless a declaration is made by the state for disaster, there's no funding stream for it,” Denver said.

He said that if the state doesn’t declare a disaster due to flooding, those health entities will have to decide if they can afford to pay out-of-pocket to transport people out of flooded villages. Last week, YKHC announced that it was furloughing and laying off 300 employees due to low revenue.

Denver says that it’s too early to tell if the flooding this year will require evacuating entire villages. He says that the Kuskokwim River watch crew is starting aerial surveys so that people can know what’s coming down the river. You can find river watch updates on KYUK, or the National Weather Service website and Facebook page.