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Life in Alaska

Four Years Later, Eagle is Still Recovering from Historic Flood

*This story won First Place for Best Single Story Reporting from the Alaska Press Club in 2013.

Eagle, AK -  Across the country, Americans are in a state of recovery.  On the east coast, residents are dealing with the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.  A drought in the southern and central portion of the nation is taking its toll.  

In Alaska’s tiny communities of Eagle and Eagle Village, residents are also recovering…  Four years ago, the worst flood on record there wiped out the village and a portion of the city. KUAC’s Emily Schwing visited both communities last summer to find out how locals have fared since.

Eagle village used to sit at the edge of the Yukon River, roughly four miles upriver from where the water takes a sharp turn north at Eagle Bluff.  That was also four miles away from the city of Eagle.  The two communities have always been independent of one another, but they both suffered major losses in 2009.

“After the flood there were quite a few people who got new houses,” says Eagle Village Elder Ethel Beck. She grew up in the old village, but it was completely destroyed by the flood.  Chunks of ice pushed log houses across the floodplain.  Three of them still lean awkwardly amongst the shrubbery on either side of the river.  There’s a line of crushed and twisted vehicles and nearby, a few leftover personal belongings still dot the floodplain where the old village once stood.

Beck says she didn’t want to move into her new house after the waters receded.  “You know, the part I think we all liked is, you were just next door to each other and you go out your door and you can see up or down the village and see everybody.  Here, it’s like you’re kind of isolated.”

Beck’s new home is still almost a mile from a new tribal hall, community center and health clinic.  Hers is one of five identical white sided homes along the main dirt road.  They seem oddly placed.  And Beck misses her river view.  You can’t see the water from the shady spot where we sit chatting in her front yard.  There’s a thick stand of black spruce trees in the way.  “And then somebody suggested they cut these trees," she laughs, "but who wants to do that and when you look at the old, old pictures of the old village, you’ll see trees just like that.”

Changecomes slowly to villages like Eagle.  In the 1990’s the Village Council started making relocation plans.  The village was too close to the river.  A flood was sure to take its toll.  But residents didn’t support the council’s move to clear land four miles further up river in 2006.  First Chief Joyce Roberts says it was the 2009 flood that convinced locals the move was necessary.  “Well, I haven’t had to argue with anybody about rebuilding down there," says Roberts.  "You never know if we’re gonna have another flood the way we did before, so I think everybody has embraced the change up here.”

As the strong river wind blows through the new village, Roberts points out all the newest homes, many built by the Menonite Disaster Service.  They are set back from the new road and surrounded by spindly spruce trees.  In the summer, fireweed blooms in front yards.  “Up here, we’re out in the woods," she explains.  "It's more wild and untamed and it brings people closer to the land and stimulates the feeling to get more closer to your culture and your heritage.”

Roberts also says residents enjoy the added privacy.  The new village is another four miles down the road from the city of Eagle.

City Postmaster and Head Librarian Theresa Dean meets me on top of a river bank.  A few waterfront businesses and a restaurant once stood here. “The ice came in and crushed all of the front of town…” she waves her arm around to emphasize what is gone.  "The water was all the way to the top of that hill," she points to a hill 200 yards away.  The bottom of the river is 30 feet below us.

Dean tries to look down over the edge of a cut bank, where a retaining wall holds the river sediment in place.  But a six-foot tall chain link fence is in her way. “It’s an insult!" she yells.  "Fences are for like criminals, vicious dogs! It just totally ruins the view.  You don’t want to come down here and sit here and look through the fence.”

Dean used to watch the river go by on a bench that’s now gone.  Large chunks of river ice destroyed it and mangled the steel posts and cables that were meant to keep people from falling in the water.  After the flood, the city erected a temporary fence that remained here for more than three years.  Last spring, Dean convinced some friends to help her cut the fence down.  But when she came to enjoy the view the next day, the fence was back in place.  “One of my neighbors suggested I should replace the wages that it took to put the fence back up," she laughs to hereself.  "I thought that was a reasonable request, so I wrote ‘em a money order for 200 dollars, a postal money order of course.”

The fence finally came down for goo last fall.  Even though the fence is gone, other glaring reminders remain.  To our left, the historic green and white customs house stands in two pieces above the river.  Behind us, the giant logs that hold up a local bed and breakfast have large gashes where enormous blocks of ice slammed into the building.  The waterfront businesses and a restaurant are gone. Four years later, no one’s quite sure if the owner will rebuild.  

Pat Sanders has lived in Eagle for nearly 25 years.  She’s the Lead Interpretive Ranger for the Yukon Charley National Preserve, headquartered here.  We sit at a picnic table overlooking the river on a particularly blustery afternoon.  Sanders is like many of her neighbors.  She says, these days, no one gets nearly as excited about the arrival of spring.   “After the 2009 flood, you really didn’t see people run to the riverbank when the ice started to move," says Sanders.  "There’s much less enthusiasm.  Even though we still look forward to breakup, we’re not as vocal as we once were.”

When the river froze this fall, the water level was high and the ice froze into a smooth sheen.  Then late in the season, the whole thing shifted.  The river has since become a mangled, marled mess of jumble ice.   There’s no way of knowing how breakup might go, but one thing’s for sure.  The residents of Eagle and Eagle village will likely never see the Yukon River the same way again.