FAIRBANKS-With just a jacket, a small bag and the clothes on his back, Galena flooding evacuee Shane Edwin stepped off an Era Airlines flight into Fairbanks on Tuesday afternoon. The lifelong Galena resident had trouble finding the words to describe the scope of destruction caused when the Yukon River breached its banks on Monday.
"The whole of it is gone," he said.
"It's scary. A whole bunch of chaos. The roads are all gone. The houses are flipped over," he said. "It's just trashed. I couldn't grab anything, not even my ID. The water came so fast."
As much as half of the Yukon River community, more than 300 people, have been evacuated to Fairbanks or other nearby communities since waters began to rise on Monday.
Edwin and 17 other Galena evacuees were greeted with hugs and sobs from family members as they recounted the horror of seeing their community destroyed by the Yukon River. Many men and women were openly weeping.
The displaced people reported traumatic scenes of escaping in rafts battered by ice bergs and floating debris, the air thick with the smell of spilled diesel and raw sewage.
Eric Huntington was one of the evacuees to relocate in Ruby and described the experience via email.
"I can only describe it as a fearful, miserable day," he wrote. "With no electricity or running water and a limited supply of water and food, I wouldn't describe it as anything less than a life and death situation because we had almost no time to grab anything from our homes. ... Pray for the evacuees, but pray especially for the ones who decided to stay behind."
Susan Paskvan was helping coordinate aid in Fairbanks and finding temporary housing for the evacuees. She said more than 100 people are being housed in Fairbanks and that many are shaken and uncertain about the prospects of returning to Galena.
The Alaska Air National Guard mobilized on Tuesday, landing an HC-130 cargo plane and an HC-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopter in Galena, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The Alaska Army National Guard also sent a Blackhawk helicopter.
The HC-130 landed in Galena, despite a momentary breach over the 20-foot-high levee that shields the airport from the flood waters, and was expected into Fairbanks Tuesday night.
Many of the evacuees made it out on private planes or planes chartered by private airlines.
"The local people did what they could," said Kate Thurmond, a resident of Galena for 30 years, tears welling in her eyes as she hugged her dog, Bella. "This was the worst flooding ever.
Many others agreed that it was the worst flooding in memory, with water levels well above the flooding of 1993 and 1971.
As of Tuesday afternoon, much of Galena remained under water with a downriver ice jam still firmly in place.
Gov. Sean Parnell and Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Katkus, commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, were reported to be surveying the damage on Tuesday afternoon.
"We expect the flooding to become worse before the waters start to recede," Parnell stated in a news release. "Ensuring the safety of those impacted by the flooding remains my top priority."
National Weather Service meteorologist Christopher Cox in Fairbanks said the ice jam at Bishop Rock is the cause of the flooding. He said the flooding should clear when the ice jam breaks, but it's unclear when that would be.
"It'll be here until the ice jam releases. The water will go down but it's hard to say when that ice jam will actually release. We're thinking within the next 24 hours," he said.
Galena also is likely not the last place to be affected by this year's flooding. Cox said the downriver community of Koyukuk will be at high risk of flooding when the jam breaks.
"Once that ice jam releases, Koyukuk is under the gun for flooding as well," he said. "It'll only take a few hours for the water to get there."
Both Circle and Eagle were hit by high waters and thick river ice when the Yukon River began its breakup a week and a half ago. Much of the Yukon River downriver from Galena is under weather service flood watch advisories.
Even though many of the evacuees are faced with the reality that most of their possessions are under many feet of water in Galena, their thoughts were almost entirely still on the people they left behind.
"I'm just worried about the people that are still stuck there," Edwin said.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics. Staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer contributed to this report.