Floods in Interior Alaska occur at two times of year. The first, which is expected by anyone who lives near a river in Alaska, is breakup floods. April is our direst month, but the melting snow is dumping tons of water into the rivers, and ice jams can form temporary dams, never in the same place twice, which lead to major flooding in the villages. A couple of weeks ago a public service announcement included a story of a small boy who was frustrated when the local teacher refused to put things up high during flood season in spite of warnings from his pupils. “You should have listened to us old-timers,” the children told him after he and his family had to be evacuated in a boat.
But one of the greatest floods in Fairbanks history occurred during the second flood season, in late August.
If April is our driest month, August is the wettest. During the summer of 1967, the rains started in earnest in July, and the Tanana river began rising from more than melting glaciers. At that time the only road into Fairbanks was the Richardson Highway, which runs along the north bank of the Tanana. That river is just south of Fairbanks, and the road had already been washed out in places by early August. The nearest upstream bridge was 100 miles east; there was at that time no highway bridge downstream that connected to anything. Fairbanks itself is built where the Chena, a smaller, meandering river, flows into the Tanana.
In mid-august the southwesterly flow from the Bering Sea, augmented by the remains of a typhoon, began dumping unprecedented amounts of rain in the headwaters of the Chena River. By Monday, August 14, it was apparent that flooding would affect Fairbanks, which is on a double flood plain. The university is located on a hill and Al George, the civil defense coordinator, announced that the 300 extra beds in the dorms would be available for refugees.
The next morning the radio sounded totally confused as to what was going on. I looked across the street, saw that water was pouring into an excavation and beginning to flood a trailer park, and stuck the cats, their food and whatever was in the powerless refrigerator in the car when I went to work. Luckily! By that time the 300 beds had been expanded to wherever people could be put, which included everywhere except the power plant—on lower ground and itself in danger of flooding. (The city and Borough power plants had already been flooded out.) For most of the next week, I was the room clerk at the Geophysical Inn or helping distribute supplies for the Salvation Army. The intersection I’d driven through at 10 am was deep enough to float trucks by noon, and it was several days before I could get home. I did have luxury quarters—the floor of the office I normally shared with my Thesis advisor. Other offices often housed several families.
I was also able to reassure my family almost at once. The Geophysical Institute at that time was heavily radio-oriented, and a number of ham radio operators were our main contact with the lower 48 states. By the time the flood was a day or two old, the operators were overwhelmed and the messages were pretty limited. I recall an old, crank-operated phone that was our link with Outside.
One of my jobs was to try to locate and check off Institute employees. Among the missing for the first couple of days was Dan Crevenston, the Assistant Director (I think — need to check.) Not until the army managed to get its high-wheeled vehicles running between the campus and the airport (which stayed inches above the flood water) did we find that Dan was helping run things at the airport – which had become another refugee center.
Looting was official, and wasn’t really looting. As I recall, local grocery stores donated whatever they had above water to the flood relief effort, and the army’s high-wheeled trucks moved it to the campus.
One sidelight if you’ve looked at the University’s official story. There is a photograph of the old Geophysical Institute in Part 3 of that story. The peculiar t-shaped structure at one end? Some of the stacked trailers we had offices in as we outgrew the building, prior to moving into the new building in 1970. (I’m probably somewhere it that picture.)