Aniak is preparing for 2 possible disasters at once: COVID-19 and flooding

Flooding in Aniak in May 2009. (Photo courtesy flood.alaska.gov)

As COVID-19 is spreading across Alaska, spring is approaching and the countdown to river breakup is beginning.

On the Kuskokwim River, that breakup is expected to be more dramatic and more destructive than recent years, with possible flooding from ice jams.

The Middle Kuskokwim community of Aniak is preparing for two possible disasters at once.

The city of Aniak, the Native Village of Aniak, and the Kuspuk School District have been meeting over the phone to answer two key issues:

“Where to have a care center for COVID-19 patients, (and) where to have a place for people who are not infected if we have a flood and they need to be evacuated,” explained Erica Kameroff, Aniak’s incident commander, mayor and tribal council member.

The current plan is that flood evacuees will go to the Aniak Junior Senior High School, and COVID-19 patients will go to the Joe Parent building, a former dormitory located next to the high school.

The two emergencies could happen simultaneously.

The National Weather Service estimates “above average flood potential” for the Kuskokwim River. Snow and ice conditions taken in March match those from 2009, a year when ice jams flooded Kuskokwim communities.

Ice jams happen when temperatures rise quickly, melting snow in a rush and cracking ice into bergs. Along the river, communities like Aniak have reported more snow than has been seen in recent years.

“Considering how much snow we have gotten — and we are still getting, because it was snowing away this morning — it does bring concerns,” Kameroff said.

Meanwhile, on April 6, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the region.

To prepare for the worst, the community asked a question that Kameroff said was hard to even bring up: Where would they put the bodies of anyone who dies from COVID-19 until the ground thaws enough to bury them?

After careful thought, the group decided on the city’s sewage lift stations.

“Because they’re secluded, and nobody really has access to them but certain employees,” Kameroff explained.  “And they can lock them up so that nothing would be bothered or tampered with.”

Aniak has no confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is enforcing travel restrictions in the hopes of keeping it that way. Residents are ordered to hunker down at home, and they can only travel out for essential reasons. Returning residents must quarantine for 14 days, and the only nonresidents allowed to enter the community are workers employed in critical infrastructure or essential needs. Before those workers can travel to Aniak, though, the employers of those workers must submit 14-day quarantine plans and have them approved by the city.

Kameroff said that Aniak’s isolation will not protect it from the coronavirus, but vigilant community action will give the city its best shot at prevention.

“We can all do our part by staying apart,” she said. “And as hard as that is in our culture, that is what is needed.”