The residents of an Alaska home that was swept away in raging floodwaters after a glacial dam burst have spoken out, telling DailyMail.com of their shock as footage of the disaster beamed around the 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, sweeping away cherished mementos and sending their cat Leo to an uncertain fate.
‘Both of us were in total disbelief, we had just paddled the river a couple of weeks before in packrafts,’ Wilkins told DailyMail.com in a phone interview on Tuesday night. ‘We had just moved all of our things into the house.’
Wilkins and Schwartz, both teachers in the Juneau School District, had been renting the home from their friends Joe Buffaloe and his wife Elizabeth Kent, who is also a schoolteacher, and currently teaching in Nicaragua while on leave from JSD.
Buffaloe and Kent also lost precious belongings in the flood, though in a lucky twist of fate, a trove of their family photos was recovered from the river, largely undamaged, by kayakers on Sunday.
It took just seconds for the house to collapse into the water during the heavy flooding on Saturday, after a glacial dam burst on the Mendenhall River
Tenants 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 been feeding the pet was unable to safely reach the home before the building was swept away
Though nobody was injured in the calamity, Wilkins and Schwartz’s cat Leo is now missing, after a neighbor who had been feeding the pet was unable to safely reach the home before the building was swept away.
However, Wilkins held out hope Leo would be found safe, telling DailyMail.com: ‘He’s a pretty smart kitty. You know, he’s an Alaska cat. So he’s got some good survival skills.’
She and Schwartz watched the disaster unfold nearly in real time, as neighbors sent photos and videos of the home being swallowed by the Mendenhall River as it swelled to unheard-of levels.
‘It wasn’t too long before we knew that our house had vanished. And then it was all over the national news, which was even crazier,’ she said.
Normally, the home is about 100 feet away from the river, separated by a wide back yard and tree line.
But on Saturday, a dam of snow and ice burst dramatically in a phenomenon known as jökuhlaup, sending a huge surge of floodwater down the river.
‘The glacial dam release was unprecedented, it was way higher than normal,’ said Wilkins.
Levels along the Mendenhall River had begun falling by Sunday and returned to normal levels Monday, but the city said river banks remained unstable.
The land around the home rapidly eroded over several hours before the building was no longer supported and was dragged into the water
Normally, the home is some 100 feet away from the river, separated by a wide back yard, as seen in the photo above taken from the riverbank
‘Both of us were in total disbelief, we had just paddled the river a couple of weeks before in packrafts,’ Wilkins told DailyMail.com
Just weeks ago, the river looked very different. On Saturday, a dam of snow and ice burst in a phenomenon known as jökuhlaup, sending a huge surge of floodwater down the river
On Tuesday night, Wilkins and Schwartz were preparing to fly back to Juneau, where they planned to launch a search for missing Leo.
‘I’m just so amazed that our community,’ Wilkins said, saying that neighbors in Juneau had launched a GoFundMe campaign to help them get back on their feet.
‘People have just been helping out with every single thing, and it’s been really touching, and I think that’s one of the best things about living there is we have an incredible community,’ she said.
Meanwhile, family members have also launched a GoFundMe campaign to support the homeowners, Kent and Buffaloe, who are currently living in Nicaragua.
Their daughter Addy is in her first year of college, and was surprised to see an Instagram post of her family photos that had been retrieved from the river.
‘As my family returned from a kayaking trip on Sunday, my son Liam came across a floating dining table leg among other debris,’ photojournalist Michael Penn wrote on the post.
‘When we got into cell phone range we learned of the glacial dam outbreak, flooding along Mendenhall River and the loss of people’s homes,’ he continued.
‘We collected floating foam insulation as we paddled back through a debris field. Liam lassoed a couch cushion and towed it back. Then I found a waterlogged Ziploc bag of pictures labeled with just “Family”,’ he added.
‘I would like to return this pictures to the owners. Please send me a message if you recognize and know these people.’
Addy quickly saw the post and responded: ‘those are my family photos!’
A fundraiser was also launched for a family who live next door. The Dorsey family were told their insurance would not cover the damage after their unit in a condo building was damaged.
Homeowners Joe Buffaloe and his wife Elizabeth Kent (above), who is also a schoolteacher, are currently in Nicaragua, where she is teaching temporarily
Another home hangs over the edge of an eroded riverbank after part of the neighboring house fell into the Mendenhall River in Juneau on Sunday
The Mendenhall River flooded on Saturday following a major release from Suicide Basin above Alaska’s capital city, 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 initially pulled into the rushing waters. As the bank continued to recede across several hours, the home, teetering at the edge, collapsed into the river.
River levels began falling on Sunday but the city said the banks of the river remained highly unstable. Some roadways were blocked by silt and debris from the flooding, it said.
Such glacial outburst floods happen when glaciers melt and release massive amounts of pent-up water into nearby rivers.
A study released earlier this year found such floods pose a risk to 15 million people around the globe, more than half of them in India, Pakistan, Peru and China.
Suicide Basin has released water that has caused flooding along the Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River since 2011, according to the National Weather Service.
However, the maximum water level in the lake on Saturday night exceeded the previous record flood stage set in July 2016, the weather service reported.
Weather experts had predicted just a one percent chance of the flooding which took place. ‘We didn’t even think that this was possible,’ said National Weather Service Juneau hydrologist Aaron Jacobs.
Witness Sam Nolan, who filmed the moment the home collapsed into the water, said: ‘It was really sad to see, but all we could do was stand there and watch.’
Robert Barr, Deputy City Manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, said: ‘We continue to have teams out in the field. Right now, one of the things we’re doing is visiting residences and making assessments about whether or not they’re occupiable or not.’