Residents of a home in Alaska that was swept away by raging floodwaters after a glacial dam burst have spoken out, telling DailyMail.com of their shock as footage of the disaster emerged in the whole world.
Elizabeth Wilkins and her partner Tom Schwartz were traveling in Oregon when the raging Mendenhall River hit their rental home in Juneau on Saturday, washing away precious memories and sending their cat Leo to an uncertain fate.
“We were both totally in disbelief, we had just been paddling the river a few weeks before in packrafts,” Wilkins told DailyMail.com in a telephone interview on Tuesday evening. “We had just moved all our stuff into the house.”
Wilkins and Schwartz, both teachers in the Juneau School District, rented the house from their friends Joe Buffaloe and his wife Elizabeth Kent, who is also a schoolteacher, and are currently teaching in Nicaragua while on leave from JSD.
Buffaloe and Kent also lost valuable possessions in the flood, although in a lucky twist of fate a treasure trove of their family photos was recovered from the river, largely intact, by kayakers on Sunday.
It took just seconds for the house to collapse into the water during heavy flooding on Saturday, after a glacial dam burst on the River Mendenhall.
Renters Elizabeth Wilkins and her partner Tom Schwartz were traveling in Oregon when the raging Mendenhall River hit their rental home in Juneau, Alaska on Saturday.
Wilkins and Schwartz’s cat, Leo, is now missing, after a neighbor who had fed the animal was unable to reach the house safely before the building was swept away
Although no one was injured in the calamity, Wilkins and Schwartz’s cat, Leo, is now missing, after a neighbor who was feeding the animal was unable to reach the house safely before the building is washed away.
However, Wilkins hoped Leo would be found safe, telling DailyMail.com: “He’s a pretty smart cat.” You know, it’s an Alaskan cat. So he has good survival skills.
She and Schwartz watched the disaster unfold in near real time, as neighbors sent in photos and videos of the house being swallowed up by the Mendenhall River as it swelled to unprecedented levels.
“It wasn’t long before we knew our house was gone. And then it was all over the national news, which was even crazier,’ she said.
Normally the house is about 100 feet from the river, separated by a wide back yard and a line of trees.
But on Saturday, a barrage of snow and ice erupted dramatically in a phenomenon known as jökuhlaup, sending a huge surge of floodwater into the river.
“The release from the glacial barrage was unprecedented, it was way above normal,” Wilkins said.
Levels along the Mendenhall River had started to drop on Sunday and returned to normal levels on Monday, but the city said the banks of the river remained unstable.
The land around the house eroded rapidly for several hours before the building became unsupported and washed into the water
Normally, the house is about 100 feet from the river, separated by a wide back yard, as seen in the photo above taken from the bank.
“We were both totally in disbelief, we had just been paddling the river a few weeks before in packrafts,” Wilkins told DailyMail.com
Just a few weeks ago, the river looked very different. On Saturday, a dam of snow and ice erupted in a phenomenon known as jökuhlaup, sending a huge surge of floodwater into the river
On Tuesday evening, Wilkins and Schwartz were preparing to fly back to Juneau, where they planned to launch a search for missing Leo.
“I’m so amazed that our community,” Wilkins said, saying neighbors in Juneau started a GoFundMe campaign to help them get back on their feet.
“People come to help with everything, and it’s really touching, and I think that’s one of the best things about living there is that we have an amazing community,” she said.
Meanwhile, family members also launched a GoFundMe campaign to support the owners, Kent and Buffaloe, who currently live in Nicaragua.
Their daughter Addy is a freshman in college and was surprised to see a Instagram post of his family photos recovered from the river.
“As my family was returning from a kayaking trip on Sunday, my son Liam came across a dining table leg floating among other debris,” photojournalist Michael Penn wrote on the post.
“As we came into cell phone range, we learned of the outbreak of the Glacial Dam, flooding along the Mendenhall River and loss of homes,” he continued.
“We collected floating foam insulation as we paddled through a debris field. Liam lassoed a couch cushion and towed it away. Then I found a waterlogged Ziploc bag containing photos labeled simply “Family,” he added.
‘I would like to return these photos to the owners. Please message me if you recognize and know these people.
Addy quickly saw the message and replied, “Those are my family photos!”
A a fundraiser has also been launched for a family that lives next door. The Dorsey family was told their insurance would not cover damages after their unit in a condominium was damaged.
Owners Joe Buffaloe and his wife Elizabeth Kent (above), who is also a schoolteacher, are currently in Nicaragua, where she is temporarily teaching
Another house hangs on the edge of an eroded bank after part of the neighboring house fell into the Mendenhall River in Juneau on Sunday
The Mendenhall River flooded Saturday following a major spill from the Suicide Basin above the Alaskan capital, a news release from the city and borough of Juneau said.
At least two buildings were destroyed and residents of other at-risk properties were evacuated during the incident.
Videos posted on social media showed towering trees along the river bank were first swept away in the stormy waters. As the bank continued to recede for several hours, the house, tottering at the edge, collapsed into the river.
The river level began to drop on Sunday, but the city said the banks of the river remained very unstable. Some roads were blocked by silt and debris from the floods, he added.
Such glacial floods occur when glaciers melt and release huge amounts of pent-up water into nearby rivers.
A study published earlier this year found that such flooding poses a risk to 15 million people worldwide, more than half of them in India, Pakistan, Peru and China.
Suicide Basin has released water that has caused flooding along Lake Mendenhall and the Mendenhall River since 2011, according to the National Weather Service.
However, the peak water level in the lake on Saturday evening surpassed the previous flood record set in July 2016, the weather service reported.
Meteorologists had predicted only one percent risk of flooding. “We didn’t even think that was possible,” said National Weather Service Juneau hydrologist Aaron Jacobs.
Witness Sam Nolan, who filmed the moment the house collapsed in the water, said: ‘It was really sad to see, but all we could do was just stand there and watch.
Robert Barr, Deputy City Manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, said, “We continue to have teams on the ground. Right now, one of the things we do is visit residences and assess whether they are occupancy or not.