Western Alaska prepares for massive storm

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 8, 2011 

Villages and towns across Alaska's western and northwest coasts braced Tuesday for a winter megastorm that the National Weather Service says could be among the worst on record.

Forecasters warned of life-threatening surf, wind and snow clobbering villages along the Bering and Chukchi sea coasts Tuesday night and today. Some villagers moved to higher ground. Officials in Nome evacuated half of the city's Front Street, the famous finish line of the Iditarod Trail.

"These things get named hurricanes down south and get a category. It's that magnitude," said Jeff Osiensky, regional warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The storm was expected to hit across hundreds of miles of coastline, with the worst expected from the Yukon River Delta all the way north to the Arctic Coast.

The wind was forecast to reach 50 to 75 mph for much of the coast, with gusts of 90 to 100 mph in some areas, according to the Weather Service. A lack of protective, shore-fast sea ice worsened the high-water danger compared to a similarly powerful storm in 1974, forecasters said.

Severe shoreline erosion was forecast, as was a storm surge of up to 9 feet that was expected to cause coastal flooding.

As the state triggered an emergency operations center in Anchorage, some villagers hundreds of miles away boarded windows in preparation for the worst.

"There was a big rush at the store today to get water," said Elmer Davis, a former police officer who lives in the village of Shishmaref, which has seen extensive coastal erosion.

"I don't get scared too easy," he said, "and this sounds like Armageddon."

EVACUATION PLANS

The response in many communities has been similar to that seen in hurricane-prone regions of the Lower 48, said Bryan Fisher, incident commander with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

City leaders in Nome ordered the evacuation of the south side of Front Street and other low-lying areas in anticipation of waves pouring across the seawall, said Mimi Farley, Nome emergency service administrator. About 70 miles to the north, dozens of people living near the sea in the Seward Peninsula village of Teller crowded into homes with friends and relatives on higher ground, said elementary school teacher Jan Delaney.

"Holy cow. We're maybe 50, maybe 75 feet from the ocean," she said.

Three communities -- Gambell, Savoonga and Saint Michael -- set up evacuation centers in case residents need a safe place to sleep, Fisher said.

In Point Hope, surrounded by Arctic waters on a narrow spit 330 miles southwest of Barrow, workers armed with radios watched the water Tuesday night.

At the first sign of flooding, villagers planned to sound ambulance and fire truck sirens, alerting people to head for the city school, which stands on pilings about 15 feet above the rest of the village, said Point Hope Mayor Steve Oomittuk. "We have no other place to go than the school that puts us up into higher ground."

In Kotzebue, the hub city for a collection of largely Inupiat villages in Northwest Alaska, the city and borough planned to urge residents to stay inside, said acting city manager Keith Greene. "One of our concerns up here is people walking through the snow and getting lost."

Even during routine storms, winds and blowing snow can blind travelers on the outskirts of the city. Greene said the super storm is expected to whip gusts as strong as 100 mph.

The message for Kotzebue residents will be "stay indoors, don't leave home for the next couple days," he said.

Iditarod champion John Baker, who lives and trains in Kotzebue, planned to have his 23-year-old son watch his dog team overnight, he said.

If the water rises too high, or the snow piles too deep, it'll be time to move the dogs, Baker said.

'EPIC MAGNITUDE'

Alaskans, especially those living on the coast, are no strangers to brutal winter weather. But the language of the National Weather Service warnings signaled that this week's storm was no ordinary storm.

"This will be (an) extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm of an epic magnitude rarely experienced," read one bulletin. "All people in the area should take precautions to safeguard their lives and property."

The storm is dangerous because seas of 15 to 25 feet could overturn small boats, and widespread blizzard conditions over much of the west coast could strand backcountry travelers, said Bob Fischer, lead forecaster for the Weather Service in Fairbanks.

"I've worked at this office for about 40 year and I haven't seen anything like this," said Fischer, whose office forecasts for the Northwest and Western coasts.

Across the state, Alaskans turned to social media to track the storm and keep tabs on friends in far-flung villages.

"Winds getting stronger in #Nome," Tweeted David Dodman of Nome. "@knom building shaking even more (my desk is on 2nd floor); feels like airplane turbulence.."

Meantime, travel advisories were being issued Tuesday and flights were canceled throughout the Norton Sound region. An indication of just how seriously people were taking the threat was the postponement of a big regional school cheerleading and wrestling tournament in Unalakleet.

"This is the most precaution for a storm that I've seen people take," said Jay Thomas, principal at Unalakleet's Frank A. Degnan School, who has been living in the region for nine years.

The mayor and city council had met with school district officials to formulate emergency plans, he said. Elders had been evacuated from the low-lying beachfront to houses at higher levels. Local stores had donated bottled water and other supplies to stock the school in the event that people have to take shelter there.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

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