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Storm packing snow, hurricane-force winds batters Alaska coast; villages brace for sea surge

Posted: November 10, 2011 - 1:06am
In a Tuesday Nov. 8, 2011 photo, Nome kids plays in sea foam near the Nome harbor late Tuesday evening, Nov. 8, 2011 as the big Bering Sea storm starts kicking up in Nome, Alaska.   High winds and surging waves pummeled Alaska's western coast Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, churning the Bering Sea and forcing residents of Nome and isolated native villages to seek higher ground inland.   (AP Photo/Peggy Fagerstrom)  Peggy Fagerstrom
Peggy Fagerstrom
In a Tuesday Nov. 8, 2011 photo, Nome kids plays in sea foam near the Nome harbor late Tuesday evening, Nov. 8, 2011 as the big Bering Sea storm starts kicking up in Nome, Alaska. High winds and surging waves pummeled Alaska's western coast Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, churning the Bering Sea and forcing residents of Nome and isolated native villages to seek higher ground inland. (AP Photo/Peggy Fagerstrom)

ANCHORAGE — One of the strongest storms to hit western Alaska in nearly 40 years battered coastal communities Wednesday with snow and hurricane-force winds, knocking out power, ripping up roofs and forcing some residents to board up their windows and seek higher ground.

Emergency managers said Wednesday afternoon that the winds were tapering off, with 85-mph gusts winding down to 55-mph gusts. The storm passed through more southern points of its path. But managers warned that many points farther north on Alaska’s western coast between Norton Sound and Point Hope remained vulnerable to a possible surge of sea water that could bring varying degrees of flooding to villages already soaked, depending on how much shoreline protection they have or don’t have.

“This is a storm of epic proportions,” said meteorologist Jeff Osiensky with the National Weather Service. “We’re not out of the woods with this.”

Some villages, such as Kivalina, could be even more vulnerable with winds shifting as they head to Russia, officials said.

Water reportedly reached some homes in at least four Native villages, including Tununak and Kipnuk, state emergency managers said earlier Wednesday.

Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state’s emergency management agency, noted there have been no reports of injuries, and that damage so far has been largely limited to blown-out windows and battered roofs. Nome, Hooper Bay and Tununak reported scattered power outages. During outages, officials were able to maintain contact with communities by satellite phone and UHF radios.

Wednesday’s planned test of the National Emergency Alert System was cancelled in Alaska due largely to the weather, KSRM-radio reported.

The highest wind gusts recorded — 89 mph — were at Wales at the western tip of the Seward Peninsula, which forms the U.S. side of the Bering Strait, said Bob Fischer, lead forecaster for the weather service in Fairbanks.

Winton Weyapuk, president of the Wales Village Corp., said the community suffered more lost sleep than damage.

“People said they were worried,” Weyapuk said. “When the wind gusted here, it was pretty loud inside their homes.”

Some families moved to the school overnight as a precaution. Water came high into dunes in front of the village and approached the school steps, he said. But a drive through the community of 136 before the sun came up revealed little damage.

The southeast direction of the wind helped, Weyapuk said.

“The wind was blowing parallel to the beach instead of from the south or southwest, which would have brought the waves straight in,” he said.

In Nome — the biggest of the coastal communities with about 3,600 residents — wind gusted to 61 mph. City officials said Wednesday afternoon that they closed and barricaded streets in low-lying areas where flooding was reported and urged residents to keep clear of those areas.

“Water was at the bases at a number of buildings but not in the homes yet,” Fischer said. He added tides could reach 7 feet above normal.

The height of snow and hurricane-force winds hit the historic gold mining town at about 2 a.m., police spokesman Zane Brown said.

“We do have some reports of buildings losing roofs in the Nome area,” said meteorologist Scott Berg at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

Residents along Front Street, which runs less than 100 feet from the seawall that protects Nome from the Bering Sea, were asked to voluntarily evacuate Tuesday night. They stayed with friends on higher ground or at one of two shelters opened by the city at a recreation center and at a church, Brown said.

Before sunrise, a piece of sheet metal blew onto wires and temporarily knocked out the town’s power and cellphone service, Nome emergency services administrator Mimi Farley said by email.

About 180 miles to the northeast, in Kotzebue, the regional hub for northwest Alaska villages, the storm had quieted down by 10:30 a.m.

Wind gusting to 74 mph had damaged a few sheds and roofs. But power, phones and other utilities were not interrupted, said Dennis Tiepelman, public administrator for the Northwest Arctic Borough.

“Just debris and loose stuff flying around. No power outage, no utilities were off,” Tiepelman said.

As the storm moved north to the Chukchi Sea at midday, a 14-foot rock seawall was holding up in Kivalina, one of the villages hardest hit by coastal erosion in recent decades, said community spokeswoman Colleen Swan.

But winds were expected to shift later Wednesday, and that could mean flooding on top of ice in the village lagoon and nearby homes, she said. Damage so far was limited to tin roofing on homes.

Swan’s sister, Marilyn Swan, made the five-minute walk to her job as the city clerk. By the time she arrived, she was covered with clumps of snow.

“I’ve never seen it that bad before,” she said. “We’ve had storms, but this is pretty strong.”

The storm also pounded Tununak, 519 miles northwest of Anchorage. Water rising in a river had reached boardwalks in the Yupik Eskimo village, resident Elizabeth Flynn said.

Officials feared a lack of shore-fast sea ice would leave Nome and Native villages sprinkled along the coast vulnerable to sea surges.

The last time the communities saw something similar was in November 1974, when a storm created a sea surge that measured more than 13 feet. The surge pushed beach driftwood above the level of the previous storm of its type in 1913.

The state is closely monitoring the storm and is ready to send help wherever needed, said Zidek, with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“Our number one priority is the safety of life in those communities,” Zidek said. He noted there have been no reports of toppled fuel tanks or toxic spills.

The state and emergency managers in the villages have long prepared for the powerful storms that batter Alaska’s western coast, holding twice-yearly meetings on dealing with emergencies. In the past few years, the state has held evacuation workshops as well, Zidek said.

The Coast Guard had received no calls Wednesday morning from vessels seeking help from the storm, Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis said.

Francis said the storm hit after most crab fishing had concluded.

“We’re kind of in a lull with a lot of the fisheries,” she said.

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