Elders in Napaimut rescued by helicopter as flood waters rise

An ice jam downstream of Napaimute has caused flooding, submerging buildings at the seasonal village site along the Kuskokwim River, pictured here on April 30, 2020. (Credit Alaska State Troopers)

Pararescuers airlifted two elders from the site of their flooded cabin Thursday night, as water in the swollen Kuskokwim River rose behind an ice jam.

The couple, John and Seraphine Borowski, live in a cabin on the river’s south bank across from the seasonal village of Napaimute. The couple are both in their mid 70s.

Water has been rising in the area since Wednesday, when thick ice slabs jammed the river about seven miles below the village. As of Friday morning, the Borowskis are safe in the community of Aniak.

Ben Leary is in Napaimute. He grew up knowing the couple, and was talking with John on the VHF radio as the water rose towards the Borowski cabin.

“He was reluctant to call for helicopter evacuation, but his wife wanted to be evacuated,” Leary said. “So we went ahead and sent a helicopter to them last [Thursday] night.”

Troopers received the call around 8 p.m., and the Rescue Coordination Center dispatched Pararescue from Anchorage, according to an online dispatch. They arrived in a helicopter about four hours later, around midnight. The Borowskis had climbed into their boat, which they had tied to the cabin to wait out the flood. The helicopter crew harnessed the couple out of the boat and flew them to Aniak.

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Leary explained why John didn’t want to leave his home.

“He’s a very solitary type of man, values his isolation,” Leary said. “That little piece of land he’s got right there, that’s his life’s work. That’s his most prized possession is his little plot of land right there. He spent his entire life building that place up.”

Another of John’s friends, Eric Morgan Sr. in Chuathbaluk, was also on the VHF radio with the Borowskis as the flood waters rose around their cabin. Morgan Sr. was afraid that an ice sheet could plow into the couple’s home and hurt, maybe even kill the couple. Morgan Sr. told John that life was more important than worrying about his house, and that the community would help him rebuild if his home was destroyed.

In Napaimute, the 21-year-old Leary said that he’s never seen such high water. Friday morning, he said that the river had submerged the runway and just the roof of a 30-foot tall airplane hanger was visible from the air. The water and ice have shoved eight cabins off their foundations and pushed them into the woods. He said that the icebergs measure 5 feet thick.

“There’s only four dwellings at the moment that are untouched by the water,” Leary said. “But if that ice hits us and that water, I doubt that’s going to last very long.”

Leary’s cabin is currently above the water line. He’s in Napaimute with two 15-year-olds from Aniak. They’ve prepared the property as well as they could for potential flooding by securing loose items and moving valuable items to higher ground.

He said that if the water overtakes the cabin, they will climb the hill to the church, taking food, drinking water, and a satellite phone, and wait at least 24 hours before calling for a helicopter rescue.

“Now,” Leary said, “we’re just playing the waiting game.”

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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