Bethel prepares for flood evacuations amid COVID-19 pandemic

Walter Betz’s house on Osage Avenue surrounded by water was taken April 18 (Photo courtesy of Beverly Hoffman)

Ice is melting in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. And with abnormally high snowfall during one of the coldest winters in years, people are expecting more water and more flooding than usual this spring. Some Bethel residents are already seeing high water levels around their homes, and city administration is planning for a scenario where people may need to evacuate.

Walter Betz, who lives on Osage Avenue between Pinky’s Park and Fili’s Pizza, said water hit his house from all directions last weekend. Melting snow from Tundra Ridge, the slough, and the area above the fitness center all flowed into his yard.

“It was just coming right through there like a river,” Betz said. “The deepest part of my house, it was 5, maybe 5-feet deep.”

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Betz said that the water didn’t make it into his house, but he is concerned that there may be more water coming and he wants to make sure that the city’s culverts and drains are working properly.

“We’ve heard of those issues,” said Bethel’s new city manager, Vincenzo “Vinny” Corazza, “and public works is running around ragged trying to fix those.”

The water from the initial snowmelt inside the city may just be a sign of what’s to come. The city is preparing for the worst-case scenario: people having to evacuate their homes. Corazza said that those preparations are more complicated than usual this year. 

“It’s not a regular flooding situation,” Corazza said. “It’s a flooding on top of a pandemic.” 

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Corazza said that with the COVID-19 pandemic, moving people to a gym or communal space is a last resort. The first option, if homes get flooded, is to go stay at a house that isn’t flooded. 

“We are in COVID. We are in a pandemic, so shelter in place,” Corazza said. “If you have relatives or friends in town that could take you in, you could shelter in place with them until (the water at) your house recedes.”

Option two is putting evacuated families in hotel rooms in Bethel, he said. But hotel rooms are also serving another purpose.

“Right now we have 80-odd hotel rooms that we’re basically trying to avoid so that YKHC has those available for any kind of quarantine, any kind of COVID patients,” Corazza said.

He said that the city would only use half of the available hotel rooms for flood evacuees, leaving the remaining rooms for COVID-19 quarantine patients. 

The final resort is to house people in communal spaces. Bethel’s grant manager, John Sargent, who’s been working at the city’s emergency operations center, said the city is looking into the YK Fitness Center, school buildings, the ONC multipurpose building and the Alaska Army National Guard Armory as possible evacuation sites. Corazza said that the city would space out cots 10 feet apart, hand out face masks and hand sanitizer, and encourage people to practice social distancing.

Bethel Mayor Perry Barr, also a member of the Civil Air Patrol, said that the organization is going to begin flying up and down the Kuskokwim River next week to survey the conditions.

“There’s a lot of snow melt, and a lot of melting going on,” Barr said.

He said the patrol will be looking for how much water is coming down the river so people know what to expect.