Flooding is a common problem when rain combines with melting snow in the spring. But floods are unexpected in Alaska in December, when the average temperature high is just 16 degrees Fahrenheit and most things are frozen. Residents in Willow, AK, learned that floods can happen year-round, demonstrating why it is important to be prepared for them at any time.

In December 2019, an ice dam that formed on Willow Creek in southeastern Alaska led to a flood that affected several homes and cut off road access to more than 30 homes. Help came from the many local agencies in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Mat-Su, as it’s abbreviated, is about the size of West Virginia, with 106,000 residents spread over a mostly rural area. Agencies that assisted included the Mat-Su Department of Emergency Services/Office of Emergency Management, Mat-Su Water Rescue Team, Mat-Su Animal Care, the American Red Cross, the Willow CERT , and four fire departments.

“It would be hard to forget this event,” said Brenda McCain, Willow CERT Team Leader. “It is nothing [like] anyone of us can ever recall — sudden flooding filling a home at 11:15 at night at 17 below zero in December!”

Willow CERT members individually helped with canteen services provided by American Red Cross workers for residents and first responders. The CERT was prepared to support sheltering assistance for residents.

“Our CERT stayed in constant communication with emergency services, attended all community meetings, and stood ready to help if needed at any time,” said McCain. The majority of Willow CERT volunteers have cross-trained with the American Red Cross by completing its Shelter Fundamentals course, making this integration of support seamless.

The Willow CERT is comprised of 45 members and responds to many incidents in its area. “Willow CERT is always ready to help their community, and they exemplify a ‘we got this’ attitude. We knew we could count on them to step up during the flooding just as they did the previous summer when wildfires affected the area,” said Talon Boeve, CERT Coordinator of Mat-Su Borough.

“The CERT worked closely with displaced residents making sure their animals and personal needs were being met. They projected a sense of community members helping community members during this time. The ability to interact, show empathy, and deliver services is a hallmark of this particular CERT team,” she said.

Luckily, no houses were destroyed during the flood, and residents were able to recover relatively quickly after the flood water receded.

Most recently, members helped set up COVID-19 outdoor testing sites from April to August.

“The majority our team are seniors, so they are more vulnerable if they did contract COVID-19. We had an opportunity to help in a way that we could be outside, keep a safe distance, wear our masks, and get some exercise,” McCain said.

Last year, the CERT responded to the McKinley and Deshka Landing wildfires, which destroyed 52 homes and burned more than 4,500 acres. During these incidents, Willow CERT assisted the Red Cross with setting up, running, and taking down a shelter. It also helped with parking lot management and served as an information and community liaison.

As the Willow CERT’s story shows, disasters can happen at any time. To ensure you are prepared for floods, it is important to make sure you have flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program can help advise you on the type of insurance you need, what you need to be aware of, and how to prepare for floods.

To learn more about CERT, please visit www.ready.gov/cert.

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