Revisiting the Fairbanks flood 50 years later

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Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the Fairbanks flood of 1967.
In commemoration of the disaster, we're taking a look at what happened, and how residents responded.

Fairbanks is known as the Golden Heart City, and the Chena River is at the heart of Fairbanks. It provided a transportation artery for miners and other residents before the territory had roads, trains or airplanes.

But in August of 1967, the rain started and it didn't stop - the likes of which residents had never seen before.

Ed Plumb, National Weather Service:
"We had about three and a half inches in one day, but over that period between the 8th of August and the 15th of August, we had about six inches of rain. The annual precipitation for the entire year is about 10 and a half or 11 inches, so we had more than half our annual precipitation in one week. And locations to the east of here, kind of in the headwaters of the Chena basin, had up to 7 to 9 inches during that period. So, a lot of rain in a very short period of time."

The water came up fast, catching much of the town unprepared. There was little that Fairbanksans could do as the Chena breached its banks and inundated more than 90 percent of the city's homes.

Almeda Witter still lives in the house she was in during the flood. As the water rose, she got a call from her husband, who worked at the power plant.

"Island Homes was flooded, and several of the people he worked with lived in Island Homes and other surrounding areas he told me about that were flooded. And he said, 'I think it would be a good idea if maybe you and the girls thought about getting out of there, out of the house, and either coming here or getting to higher ground.' I said, 'No, I'm not going to take the girls and leave the house.' I said 'It's never flooded here; we're not worried about it.' And of course it rained day and night, so I think it was about 6 o'clock that evening, and he said, 'Either you come to the power plant or I'm going to send somebody over there, because it's really getting high.'"

Almeda Witter was among thousands of residents forced to leave their homes, having to stay for days at emergency shelters. Mayor H.A. "Red" Boucher surveyed the damage by helicopter.
"They let me have a bird the second day.

I have been in and out of homes and areas constantly for the past five days, and, ah..."
"What do they look like inside?"
"I mean, it's pretty rough."

Despite damage throughout Fairbanks, there wasn't much in the way of widespread looting, which Mayor Boucher credited to residents looking out for one another.

"We haven't had - we just haven't had any trouble. Downtown, I just went downtown in a boat, and I said, 'Hey you up on the Northward building and you over on the Polaris, just go get your 30-ought-6 with a scope on it and lean over the side of the building, and I don't think anyone's going to come out.' And we put out on the air that there were a few citizens leaning out of the Northward building or Polaris with a 30-ought-6 and a scope, and I guess any freeloaders figured that was kind of an unhealthy place to be."

It took several days for flood waters to recede. The total damage to Fairbanks was estimated at $200 million dollars, an astronomical sum at the time. And Fairbanks wasn't the only city affected, as the mayor reminded those looking to help out.

"I mean, we've had it tough. But like, uh, Nenana, their tragedy was total, and I would like to say, look, we've got plenty of food and we've got plenty of clothing. If you want to direct your attention, let's take care of the villages. I would prefer - they need help right now.

At the floodwaters' crest, the Chena River was seven feet deep on the spot where I'm standing. In the 50 years since that time, the Tanana Valley has never seen a flood so severe.