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Ice jam causes Crooked Creek flooding and prompts disaster declaration by Gov. Dunleavy

Ice jams on the Kuskokwim River flooded Red Devil and Crooked Creek over Mother's Day weekend. By Monday, May 15, the jams may be backing high water up into Napaimute as the ice front reaches Aniak.

There was flooding at Crooked Creek, but thankfully everyone is safe and accounted for and power has been restored.

Kyle Van Peursem is the senior hydrometeorologist with the federal Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center; Jen Wallace is an emergency management specialist and works for the State Emergency Operation Center in Anchorage. They flew over the Kuskokwim River on May 14 to check out conditions.

“We left this morning and went directly to, I guess, downriver of Aniak, and then followed the river up through Crooked Creek. We wanted to see where the breakup front was, and how big the ice jam was that was downstream of Crooked Creek that was causing all the flooding. And then we went upstream of Crooked Creek a little bit, and we wanted to see how much ice was still coming down the river to see if that was going to exacerbate the ice jam that's ongoing there right now," Van Peursem stated.

There was very bad flooding, according to Van Peursem. When they landed around noon on May 14, the water had gone down about 4 or 5 feet. They could see the high water mark as much as 16 feet up. Wallace said that she received phone calls on May 13 regarding the rapid flooding.

“They did not have any sort of incident commander. Everybody that is important in town is stuck in Anchorage," said Wallace. "So I was coaching them through how, you know, to get people to high ground and where they can be sheltering people. My concern over the last 24 hours was their life/health/safety risks, making sure that nobody was going to be hurt.”

Wallace coordinated with Alaska State Troopers, the Alaska National Guard, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and Donlin Gold, who had a helicopter available.

“They had a small helo where they could do kind of recon: check on conditions and water levels for us. They dropped radios in town so that those stuck could communicate with us and they could communicate with a [National] Guard helicopter that is actually just now leaving. And then they did some, some minor rescuing because they're not trained to hoist people or they don't have the equipment to do that,” Wallace said.

At the time of the interview, everyone was reported to be safe and accounted for. However, the damages in Crooked Creek are unknown at this time. Wallace said that they are still waiting for the water to go down. Both Donlin Gold and the American Red Cross are working to shelter and feed folks impacted by the flooding.

“We have, you know, feeding and sheltering and all of that kind of stuff to make sure people are taken care of," said Wallace. "I also just got a text as we were walking in that the school generator is working and the power is back up so that they can at least have heat and electricity. And they can restore phone service because we lost contact with them about 2 a.m. this morning because they didn't have any power left to charge phones and stuff like that.”

So what caused the Crooked Creek flooding? Van Peursem said that it was caused by a 15-mile-long ice jam.

“And it's just all the ice coming from downstream that’s ramming into the in-place sheet ice that's downstream. And that's where the water is backing up, that front is moving about, we calculated about 2 to 3 miles per hour downstream,” Van Peursem said.

They expect Napaimute to start seeing high water next. The high water should arrive the evening of May 14 in Aniak, but there's less of a risk there because the ice is weaker as you go downstream. Also, the Aniak River and the slough are all open, so there are more places for the water to go. But Aniak is not out of the woods yet. They expect the breakup front, based on the current speed that it's moving, to reach Aniak by around 6 a.m. on May 15, give or take several hours.

“So we're looking out for Napaimute, especially Napaimute. We feel like there's a good chance they're gonna get flooded. And then Aniak, but less of a chance once we get past Aniak; the river ice is really beginning to just pull apart and melt. So we feel there's less much less of a threat of any breakup flooding as we go down there,” Van Peursem said.

So what should communities do if there is a flood watch? Wallace wants folks to be prepared.

“It's really important and we really stress having a plan beforehand. Where are people going to go? Where are your high ground points? Is there a place where you can shelter, removing equipment, ATVs, vehicles away from the river and getting them to a safe place, making sure boats are or are tied up and easily accessible? In case that is your only access point,” Wallace noted.

Wallace also said that the governor made a disaster declaration, which includes individual and public assistance. The Alaska Emergency Services Division plans to be out in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for a while, helping the residents of Crooked Creek recover as best as they can. The Kuskokwim isn’t the only river dealing with flooding. There are several areas of the Yukon River that are experiencing some pretty significant flooding, so it’s likely that there will be another disaster declaration to get assistance to people living in those areas.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.