ANCHORAGE — Western Alaska residents braced Tuesday for an unusual Bering Sea storm that packed hurricane-force winds and 35-foot waves.
The storm was traveling at 60 mph and was expected to reach the beaches of Nome by late Tuesday, with winds hitting 85 mph, said Andy Brown, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage.
Seventy miles north of Nome in the village of Brevig Mission, teacher AnnMarie Rudstrom had made plans to move her family to higher ground from their home on a spit separating the village lagoon and the ocean. The ocean by afternoon had started to churn in shades of gray.
“It’s pretty ominous looking and the waves are getting bigger,” Rudstrom said.
Bryan Fisher of the state emergency management office said some residents of Savoonga and Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea and in St. Michael southeast of Nome had already headed for emergency shelters.
State officials warned residents to secure home heating fuel tanks in case sea water flooded into communities. Making communities more vulnerable than in past years is the lack of shore-fast sea ice, said Jeff Osinsky, the National Weather Service’s regional warning coordinator.
“The presence of sea ice can sometimes act to protect coastal areas,” he said.
With winds expected from the southwest, south-facing communities could be especially vulnerable, he said.
Wind and waves started picking up by late morning, said Scott Johnson, 28, a Nome banker, prompting some people to evacuate inland to stay with friends or family in case predictions for a big ocean wave surge prove to be true.
“The waves are starting to go up against our seawall,” he said from his second-story apartment that sits on the ocean.
Johnson said he loaded a couple of bags into his truck and got gas so he’s ready to go.
“If there are 30-foot waves, A, they might be coming over the sea and B, they might be coming into my apartment,” he said.
Stores are still pretty well stocked, but some businesses closed early.
“The general view out here is we get storms like this on a fairly regular basis,” Johnson said.
“We kind of shrug it off. But when the National Weather Service is trying to sound an alarm with 30-foot seas and this is a rare storm, take it seriously. I think they’re taking it seriously with a grain of salt.”
The bigger concern will be for Alaska Natives in the 18 villages in the region.
“They’re going to get hit more and have less infrastructure than we do,” Johnson said.
The storm was expected to produce at least a 10-foot surge, forcing dozens of coastal communities to make emergency preparations. Brown advised Bering Sea mariners and people living in coastal communities from Wales to Unalakleet to “prepare for a really nasty storm.”
The windows were boarded up Tuesday morning at the Polar Café, a popular restaurant that faces the ocean in Nome. Items stored in the basement had been carried upstairs and were in one of the hotel rooms, said waitress Andrea Surina. Plans were being made to move the propane tanks to a safer spot, she said.
“It is blowing sideways snow. The water hasn’t really come up much yet but it is starting to,” Surina said.
The approaching storm, however, wasn’t keeping the regulars away. They were sitting at their usual table, talking about the storm, she said.
“It is heading right for us,” Surina said. “Nobody misses a good storm.”
The last time forecasters saw something similar was in November 1974, when Nome also took the brunt of the storm. That surge measured more than 13 feet, pushing beach driftwood above the level of the previous storm of its type in 1913.
Winds from the current storm were expected to push large amounts of water into Norton Sound, raising sea levels 10 feet above normal through Wednesday.
That will cause beach erosion and flooding and may push Norton Bay ice on shore, forecasters said, especially with the lack of sea ice.
Seas were expected to begin rising along the coastline Tuesday afternoon and gain height rapidly at night before cresting in Nome on Wednesday.
“It will wash pretty far up the beach,” said Ted Fathauer, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
Some low-lying areas and a road that runs along the Nome beachfront could experience flooding, he said.
The village of Point Hope, which sits on the tip of a peninsula with the Arctic Ocean on one side and the Bering Sea on the other, is 7 to 8 feet above sea level, Mayor Steve Oomittuk said. The Inupiat Eskimo village of about 700 people has no sea wall and no evacuation road. If evacuation becomes necessary, everyone will go to the school because it sits on higher ground and is big enough to accommodate everyone, he said.
Smaller communities that are vulnerable to storm erosion were of particular concern, especially the village of Kivalina, already one of the state’s most threatened communities because of erosion.