Fairbanks, AK - National Weather Service Hydrologist Ed Plumb says breakup-related flood potential is moderate throughout the state. "Some places could be cut off by water," he says, "because the water is too high to cross. You may need to get around with boats to get to some structures. It causes more of an inconvenience for people and also moderate could mean we could have some buildings with water into the buildings and not just under the buildings,” explains Plumb.
That moderate rating has residents of Eagle on edge. The tiny Upper Yukon River community survived a devastating flood back in 2009. When a massive ice jam broke free that spring, a deluge of water wiped out the community’s historic riverfront and leveled the nearby Athabascan village. Some residents are preparing for another major flood this spring.
Predicting breakup along the Yukon River isn’t that straight forward, but current snowpack, river ice thickness and cool temperatures are coming together in a “perfect storm” scenario. “We still have over a foot of snow in the woods right now,” says Andy Bassich. He homesteads roughly 12 miles downriver from the city of Eagle. “The ice was close to five feet thick and very solid with about eight inches of snow on it," he says. "So all those indicators are pointing towards the possibility of a very high jamming-type breakup here at our place.” Bassich and his partner Kate Rorke own a small house that’s nestled up against a place called Calico Bluff. “We’re at the apex of a turn,” explains Bassich. That turn in the river made the homestead a prime target for floodwaters back in 2009. Bassich and Rorke nearly lost their lives four years ago. Along with their 25 dogs, the two were rescued by helicopter off the top of their house. This year, Bassich isn’t taking any chances. "I built a large raft about 16 by 20 foot with large barrels underneath of it and we plan on putting snow machines and tools up on top of that," he says. "We just moved our fish rack with about 1500 fish on it and then I’m gonna start working on building an extension on the upper deck of our porch so that we can have an area to put all of our household goods.” While he finds ways to float his belongings and move them above ground, partner Kate Rorke is moving their dogs. She’ll care for them at a small home the two maintain in town. “I still haven’t stopped having dreams about water for four years," says Rorke. "So that will tell you the impact it had.”
Before 2009, Eagle residents used to look forward to breakup. Pat Sanders has lived in Eagle for more than thirty years. In an interview last summer, she recalled a celebratory mood at the onset of warmer weather. “Store owners will leave their stores and run to the riverbank when the ice starts to move," she remembered. "Everybody’s jovial and happy and noisy and making jokes and barbeques and all sorts of things. After the 2009 flood, you really didn’t see people run to the riverbank when the ice started to move.” Sanders likened her feelings to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Maybe akin to that in a small way, because when you see that that ice move… you see it moving and it sort of scares you now.”
Ann Millard has similar feelings. She’s lived along the Yukon River bank for 17 years. Instead of cleaning off her barbecue this spring, she’s loading her personal belongings onto a school bus she can move to higher ground. “We have artwork, some beading things that I won at the fair, a cook stove and we just bought a new Blaze King and so those things will be taken out and put into the storage bus with the motorcycle,” says Millard. She’s packing a second school bus with household items, in case she and her husband have to live in it this summer. “It’s like my grandma used to say, ‘Hope for the best and prepare for the worst,’ and so we’ve decided we’re going to clear out everything of value in our house and if we have a house after break up then we’re going to paint it inside,” she says.
Other residents who live along the riverbank got a personal visit from Eagle City Mayor Don Woodruff. He’s trying to make those affected by the 2009 flood aware of conditions this year. Woodruff also posted lists of items to have on hand in the event of a flood or emergency evacuation. While he’s not necessarily a betting man, he says breakup in Eagle will likely happen before June, but after May 15th.