Flooding feared as Alaska tourist town evacuates

September 22, 2012 - 12:34 AM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The residents of the quirky Alaska tourist town of Talkeetna were asked to evacuate Friday because the nearby river continues to rise after heavy rains.

Gov. Sean Parnell toured the area by helicopter and landed to talk to some Talkeetna-area residents who had left their homes.

"It's beginning to look like an island," resident Renamary Rauchenstein told The Associated Press by telephone Friday afternoon. "It's rising pretty fast."

Flooding is causing problems over a wide swath of Alaska, from Talkeetna, near the base of Mount McKinley, to the port town of Seward, 175 miles to the south.

The governor declared a state disaster for those two areas hard-hit by flooding, "as well as other impacted areas," his office said in a statement. The designation allows increased aid and support.

It's been a tough weather month in Alaska: Anchorage has had three major wind storms, with some gusts reported over 110 mph.

"While the full extent of the damage remains unknown, it is apparent that the high winds and severe flooding will leave communities in need to state assistance to recover," Parnell said.

Many roads were closed or washed out and landslides were reported from heavy rains during the week.

The high winds and flooding have interrupted some Alaska passenger and freight train traffic since Tuesday, Alaska Railroad spokeswoman Stephenie Wheeler said. Trains scheduled to travel north of the north Anchorage suburb of Wasilla have been canceled at least until Monday. Crews were dealing with washouts and bridge damage in several areas along a 70-mile stretch.

Overnight rain totals ranged from a half inch to 1.5 inches over a 6- to 8-hour period north of Anchorage, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, said National Weather Service hydrologist David Streubel.

The Talkeetna River was 4 feet above flood level and within a foot of its record stage of 17.4 feet, Streubel said.

City officials said a levy west of town was breached in two or three places.

Water covered 35 percent of Talkeetna Friday afternoon, borough spokeswoman Mary Brodigan said, adding that flooding in the town 110 miles north of Anchorage was imminent. Sandbags were being placed along Main Street.

"I can smell the sewage," said Rauchenstein, who owns the Swiss Alaska Inn in Talkeetna with her husband, Vern.

She also is the parish director for Saint Bernard Catholic Church, and has placed a hose pumping fresh water in the building in an attempt to keep smelly flood water out.

A state community database lists Talkeetna population at about 900, but Brodigan said it's believed the evacuation request only covers about 100 people, including those living on the outskirts of town, from the Princess Lodge to the main part of Talkeetna.

The Rauchensteins planned to stay. "No, even if the power is out, it's not very cold this time of year, and we got a two-story building," she said.

For those wishing to leave, evacuation centers were being set up at a senior center and a school.

Talkeetna is the last stop for climbers heading to Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain. It also has an eclectic population, and long has been purported to be the inspiration for the Alaska town in the TV series, "Northern Exposure."

Flooding earlier in the week was reported in Seward, about 90 miles south of Anchorage. Schools, roads, businesses and one of two runways at the airport were closed.

Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Feller said it appears the situation "hasn't gotten any worse but it hasn't gotten any better."

Another storm was predicted to bring rain to the Seward area Friday night, but nothing like the level the city received earlier in the week, Streubel said.

In the recent Alaska wind storms, trees fell into power lines, leaving many people without electricity for days. The prediction of the third storm last weekend led to a rush on flashlights and propane cooking devices in Anchorage.