Brutal ice flows and raging flood water are wreaking havoc in small, isolated villages scattered along the Yukon River causing some residents of remote Alaskan areas to be evacuated to safety. The flooding, caused by an unusually cold winter followed by an unusually warm spring thaw, heaved ice blocks the size of houses onto land, completely destroying one village, including an Episcopal Church.
On Tuesday, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks served as a staging area for about 50 evacuees from Tanana, a village of 250 located on the Yukon River, said parish administrator Hilary Freeman.
"They're just coming in now from the village and I'm told there are three more planes coming in from Tanana," she said amid the sound of children playing. "They brought elders, young mothers, and babies, little ones."
No deaths or injuries had been reported but the flooding, caused by an unusually warm spring thaw, last week destroyed the village of Eagle and along with it, St. John's Church, according to the Rev. David Blanchett, the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska's representative for Alaska VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described what one person saw when he went to see his home:
Randy Mayo flew into his home village Saturday afternoon and left again the next day.
“When I arrived, I was pretty awestruck at the massive ice field in front of the village,” Mayo said. “It was right up to the top of the riverbank, huge chunks of jumble ice just choking the entire river ... the power of the river and the ice, I was awed. We’re just one little piece of this whole creation, you know? There’s nothing to do but get out of the way.”
Blanchett told ENS that the Tanana Chiefs Conference was coordinating rescue and relief efforts and beginning to assess damage. "We are waiting for the assessment team to come back so we can get an idea of what's really happening and what is needed," he said.
He said he intended to teleconference with representatives from the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), the American Red Cross, Episcopal Relief and Development and other first responders at a Thursday May 14 meeting "as we begin to move into the recovery stage. Right now we are in the relief stage. The waters have receded from Eagle, but we still have villages underwater."
Telephone lines were down and Blanchett said he did not yet know the status of churches in other affected areas, including: St. Andrew's Church in Stevens Village; St. James, Tanana; and St. Matthew's Mission in Beaver.
But, he added that: "We are trying to have an Episcopal presence in the flood areas so that they know we care and also so that we can assess what is needed so we can try to help them in the recovery stage of it."
If you want to assist evacuees and others, here's how: send a check, earmarked for flood relief, to the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska, 1205 Denali Way, Fairbanks, AK 99701.