The Russian Mission airport sits about 30 feet above the Yukon River, low enough that this spring’s destructive winter ice jam flooded the runway that provides a crucial connection to the outside world.
In mid-May, flooding described as historic in Circle on the Yukon River and Crooked Creek on the Kuskokwim River destroyed homes and caused extensive damage. As the ice moved downstream, numerous locations experienced destructive flooding, including Fort Yukon, Stevens Village, Emmonak and Nunam Iqua on the Yukon, and Kwethluk on the Kuskokwim.
Airstrips and roads suffered some damage in other villages, but the Russian Mission airport was the only one to officially close this week, essentially stranding about 400 residents without fresh food, mail or a way in or out.
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Last week, after the 3,600-foot gravel runway flooded for three days and eight or nine homes were evacuated, state emergency officials helped coordinate an Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter mission at the request of Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., a Bethel region-based tribal health organization.
The helicopter delivered a medical vendor and supplies, according to a state update. He picked up “medically fragile individuals,” including Basil Larson’s nephew’s wife, who is pregnant, and brought them to Bethel.
People at the Russian Mission are running out of food and some have had to reschedule medical appointments, Larson said by phone Wednesday. Now over 30 years old, she grew up in the town.
“Everyone is waiting for their mail and some cargo. Transportation is the most important thing, food,” she said. “There has been no fresh fruit, no fresh meat, no milk. That’s the thing. Feed the babies.
Governor Mike Dunleavy has declared a disaster area for flood-damaged regions, including the Northwest Arctic District and communities along the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Copper rivers.
State disaster officials said this week they were receiving reports of flood-affected tracks from Circle, Fort Yukon, Crooked Creek and Kalskag. Some communities have damaged airport access roads but undamaged runways.
The damage is worse in the Russian Mission because most of the other airports were built at higher elevations, so flooding didn’t cover them as extensively, officials say.
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The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is responsible for evaluating repairs in flood-damaged areas. Officials with that agency say a team was expected to arrive in the Yukon River village on Thursday to assess the damage.
Ideally, track material displaced by flooding but still covering the strip on Monday can be used to resurface it, transportation department spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said. Otherwise, the state will have to sweep in gravel, delaying the reopening of the airport.
The state’s airport system is “critical to all of these communities, so it’s critical that we get out there as soon as possible to get it open as quickly as possible,” McCarthy said, adding that that could mean opening only part of the Russian airport. Mission airstrip for now.
The state expects to know by Friday what the next steps will be, he said.
Water levels remained high Thursday in the lower Yukon, with a National Weather Service advisory in effect through Saturday afternoon for flooding from residual ice dams and melting in the lower river and tributaries from Grayling downstream to the delta to Nunam Iqua and Kotlik.
At Russian Mission, these aren’t the worst spring floods Larson has seen (2009 was worse), but the power and extent of the rupture was much more extreme than usual.
“There were bits of land floating with the ice, not just little trees, but trees, mud, roots, everything,” he said. “And they were still standing.”
By Thursday morning, Larson wrote in an update on his Facebook page, the Yukon was down and level with the south shore, though he expected the water to rise and fall again before finally settling.
He hoped the state would open the track soon, bringing cargo, mail, food, rides for delayed medical appointments, “getting back to business,” he said. “All those good things that go with travel.”
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