An unusual Bering Sea storm packing hurricane-force winds and 35-foot waves -- a type of storm not seen for decades in Alaska -- moved rapidly Tuesday toward the western Alaska coastline.
The storm was traveling at 60 mph and had reached the western Aleutian Islands, said Andy Brown, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage. It could reach the beachfront city of Nome by late Tuesday, with winds hitting 85 mph.
The wind and waves had 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 near 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, where the brunt of the storm was supposed to hit, he said.
"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."
"It is very dangerous," Brown said. "Everybody is spreading the word to let them know this is a major storm."
The storm, described by Brown as "big, deep, low," was taking an unusual path through the northern and eastern Bering Sea.
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.
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.
First responders and emergency managers in the communities likely to be affected by the storm were in contact with the State Emergency Coordination Center in Anchorage, which was working with federal and state agencies on storm response plans, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
"They are aware of the situation and are taking steps in each of those communities to respond," 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.
Oomittuk was meeting Tuesday afternoon with fire and rescue personnel and others that might be needed when the storm hits. "We are ready," 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.
Zidek said Kivalina has emergency operations plans in place.
Brown said the state emergency coordination center and the National Weather Service were in contact with emergency personnel in numerous communities. Another conference call was planned for Tuesday afternoon.
"Everybody is aware that the storm is coming," he said.