Surge peaks in Nome, still rising elsewhere

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 9, 2011 

We're posting updates on the western Alaska storm here and will continue updating as we get more information. Click here for the latest National Weather Service warnings and advisories.

6:30 p.m.: Surge peaks in Nome, water expected to stay high

Peak water levels arrived in Nome at about 6 p.m. tonight, with waves and small debris pouring above the seawall, according to the National Weather Service.

"Water has reached the door of the mini convention center," said Stephen Kearney, a meteorologist for the Weather Service in Fairbanks.

A street by the city's small boat harbor also has flooded, Kearney said, but otherwise the Weather Service received no word new flood damage.

As recently as 5 p.m., Nome emergency service administrator Mimi Farley said tonight's flooding did not appear to extend beyond areas already soaked by seawater earlier in the storm.

"Hopefully this will be the end of the high-water surge," Farley said.

The city evacuated Front Street and other low-lying areas on Tuesday.

At its peak, the storm surge and high tide rose seas about 10 feet above normal water levels tonight, Kearney said. "The sea level will remain steady into the early morning hours and then start to come down tomorrow morning."

To the east of Nome, in Norton Sound, peak water levels were expected to arrive later tonight with the Weather Service warning of "significant impacts" in the village of Golovin.

"Water levels will begin to recede this evening first in Nome and then eventually across eastern portions of Norton Sound by midnight," forecasters wrote in an update on the agency's Facebook page. "Another westerly burst of winds on Thursday will keep levels from dropping too far and some locations in Norton Sound will see another peak."

5:45 p.m. update: Wales mayor worries high seas may reach cemetery

About 110 miles north of Nome sits the whaling village of Wales, population 145.

Nearly a third of those villagers stayed at the Wales public school last night, where many families will find shelter again tonight as the Chukchi Sea inches closer to town.

Kids playing basketball in the school gym. Parents hunched over laptops to watch DVDs. A dinner of tuna casserole prepared by the school chef. The scene tonight will be mirrored in small coastal towns across the state as Alaska's ebbing superstorm surges one more time.

"The waves were reaching our garage that we have down here by our school," said school secretary Michele Ongtowasruk.

Wales Mayor Frank Crisci suspects the waves may damage the washeteria or uproot a septic tank.

"What I'm more concerned with is the cemetery site," Crisci said. Villagers killed in the 1918 flu epidemic are buried near the airport, an area that could be within reach of the waves if the waters pour too far inland, the mayor suspects.

"That whole cemetery, especially the epidemic part of it where the mass grave is, is toward the beach," he said.

5 p.m. update: Diomede: "It was obvious that there were serious problems"

Winds of 93 mph were clocked late Tuesday and early Wednesday on Diomede. Neb Schmitt, a project manager for SKW Eskimo, an Arctic Slope Regional Corporation subsidiary company currently remodeling the village school, said the crew braced for the storm but "got a lot more than we anticipated."

Two anemometers on the island measured the hurricane-force blasts.

Company and city workers "took everything they could and moved it out of harm's way, stowed things as high as we could get," in advance of the storm, Schmitt said. "We didn't have too many options; Diomede is mainly a big rock, but we thought we'd be in pretty good shape." The storm was approaching from the south and the island is somewhat protected on that side.

But "by the time it got light it was obvious that there were serious problems. We just didn't appreciate what we were experiencing until we saw it."

Waves over 30 feet high wiped everything off the whole southern portion of the island, Schmitt said. Heavy equipment and at least two metal Connex storage units were claimed by the water. A Connex weighs about 2,500 pounds empty, he said. One of the units was full of steel. It was rolled into a mangled mess. An empty Connex was washed away along with other supplies and equipment, Schmitt said. "The old man of the sea's got 'em now."

The surge shoved logs and other debris into the village, 30 feet above sea level. Villagers had pulled their boats high on shore but at least one was now missing and probably lost for good, Schmitt said.

The waves broke into the water plant and the village's water storage tank had to be shut down. It hit the fuel station, though no fuel was spilled. "We were lucky in that regard," he said. "But everybody's safe and, unbelievably, the power is still on."

Several village structures have been damaged, he said, including the water plant, fuel station and washeteria.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Schmitt said, the winds continued to roar and the surge and wave action continued to be "significant" in his words. "We're just waiting for it to subside so we can assess the damage."

For the time being, Little Diomede remains cut off from the rest of the world. The only access to the island is by helicopter and Schmitt said he's been informed that there will be no flights until at least Friday.

Even then, there could be a problem. The four year-old helipad has been damaged. Schmitt described bad erosion on the southwest side of the pad. Video taken by the company shows water smothering it.

"The elders say it's the most significant storm they've ever seen," Schmitt said. "It's definitely a serious, serious event.

4:30 p.m. update: "We're still in the midst of this"

The massive low-pressure system still stirring up the Bering Sea is expected to weaken and continue moving northwest over the next day or so, but state emergency response coordinators say Western Alaska communities are still at risk from rising water associated with the huge storm.

"The surge, the piling of water out in the ocean, is continuing to remain fairly high and will continue to push it along the coast over the next 12 to 18 hours," said Jeff Osiensky, the weather service's regional warning coordinator.

Communties along Norton Sound and Kotzebue Sound were the most at risk of flooding, with a possible sea level increase of 1 to 2 feet as high tides and the storm surge combined, Osiensky said.

"When these things line up, and the winds line up, you have your greatest threat potential," Osiensky said. "Fortunately, the wind component will be decreasing or lessening as the storm starts to deteriorate."

The storm's track will cause southerly and southeasterly winds to shift to a more westerly flow, Osiensky said. That means areas with ocean directly to their south and west, including the village of Kivalina, will be more susceptible to water, he said.

And while none of the communities hit by the storm have requested help from the state yet, the villages of Deering and Kotlik reported water in town Wednesday, said David Kang, incident commander for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The state expects more communities to report water damage as the evening progresses, Kang said.

"We're still in the midst of this," Kang said. "There are many communities in that area where we do not know the outcome."

The state continues to monitor several communities with intermittent power outages, Kang said. The most people affected by an outage in one community was about 10, but Kang was unsure in what town.

If regular phone connections are knocked out, each of the communities has been reachable by either satellite phone or VHF radio relay through hub communities, Kang said.

The state has been in contact with almost every Western Alaska community every two hours for the past 24 hours, said John Madden, director of the state homeland security division.

"Nearly constant communication," Madden said. "We have their reports, we have their status, but they have not requested any assistance from outside their own community."

3 p.m. update: Winds weaken, but water on the rise

The blizzard winds may be flagging as superstorm roars north, but forecasters say water levels are expected to peak before midnight in Alaska towns and villages along Norton Sound, all the way north to Point Hope.

Here's the latest from the National Weather Service in Alaska:

"The massive storm center has moved north of the Bering Strait, allowing for the worst of the winds and blizzard conditions to weaken. HOWEVER, conditions are very favorable for water levels to rise this afternoon and evening from Norton Sound, Kotzebue Sound, and up to Point Hope. Indications are the peak will occur before midnight in most locations. The peak water level that occurred last night in the northern portion of Norton Sound will be matched or exceeded by a foot or two. We expect a lull in the water levels overnight tonight, however another peak in water levels is expected Thursday."

2:30 p.m. update: Kivalina declares disaster

Volunteers in Kivalina are struggling to keep their snowmachines steady in roaring winds today as they ferry villagers to a makeshift shelter at the village school.

Built on a narrow thread of land facing the Chukchi Sea, Kivalina is especially vulnerable to the rising tides expected this afternoon.

"This morning we have blizzard conditions, wind gusting to 69 mph," said Colleen Swan, a member of the village's disaster response team. "The National Weather Service says that things will get worse before they get better."

Swan moved her family of seven into the Kivalina school overnight, she said. "The pilings go down 30 feet, and so that's safest place to be."

A spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said this morning that Kivalina is one of the communities officials were most concerned about.

"They could still be affected by this storm surge and they're expecting some swells three to four feet above the mean standard tide," said division spokesman Jeremy Zidek.

The Weather Service is warning of possible flooding along the Chukchi Sea coast through 6 a.m. Thursday, with high waves expected this afternoon.

Some villagers briefly evacuated Kivalina in the fall of 2007, worried that an approaching storm would destroy homes and other buildings. The village is protected by a 14-foot rock revetment built in 2008 and 2009, Swan said.

I asked her how she's feeling about the storm.

"You know what, I don't even have time to have feelings about it. I'm just trying to respond to whatever I have time to respond to. Trying not to cause a panic."

2 p.m. update: Spending the night at St. Michael city hall

"The south end of town is totally cut off," said Charlene Austin, City Administrator in St. Michael. "The whole road is flooded. Where there were three lakes, now there's one big lake connected to the oceans."

Eight homes were evacuated, including Austin's.

"We shut off our water and moved everything from the floor up, just in case the water goes in," she said. "We couldn't get our vehicles to high ground, but we moved them as far from the ocean as we could. We had to use four wheelers to go around the flood on the tundra."

About 60 people spent Tuesday night at city hall, she said, though the flooding didn't get serious until Wednesday morning. "It started to reach the road at 8:15 a.m. and by 9 it was impossible to pass."

The sun had come out in Shaktoolik by afternoon. Elmer Bekoalok reported minimum damage from high water.

"There was one little shop next to the ocean that was battered by water," he said, and it was still rising. "There's substantial amounts of slush from the storm, and some debris, people's stuff floated away. Hopefully it will start coming down with the tide.

The winds had died down and there had been no power outage, he said.

Shaktoolik, north of Unalakleet, was relocated after the storm of 1974 flooded the old village site, three miles southeast of the current town. It's a good thing people moved, Bekoalok said, because that spot was nailed again. "The waves just washed onto the old airfield," he said.

1:30 p.m. update: High water, power outages on Yukon Delta

The Lower Yukon River village of Nunam Iqua, home to about 200 people at the Bering Sea coast, lost power overnight as rising water carried away boats and at least one smokehouse, residents say.

"We're in the middle of trying to rescue all the boats," said Nunam Iqua resident Alphonsus Pete. "There's very strong, high winds.

To the south, at the mouth of the Kun River, Scammon Bay resident Carlie George said water has not reached any homes in his village.

"The water was all the way around the airport, almost engulfing (it)," he said. "They had to move the airport's heavy equipment uptown."

Scammon and Nunam Iqua are in the National Weather Service's Yukon Delta area, a region where forecasters are warning of possible coastal flooding through tonight.

"Sea levels to eight feet above normal combined with high waves will push water onshore and flood low-lying areas near the coast," the Weather Service says.


Some communities on Alaska's western coast have likely seen the worst of this week's historic "super storm," while others are preparing today for rising waters and potential flooding.

No one was reported injured overnight as powerful winds scoured the Bering and Chukchi Sea coast and water rose to the base of homes in some communities, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"Thankfully so far we haven't seen any major problems. But certainly the storm is not over. The storm surge is still a very real concern," Zidek said.

Nome, which has evacuated low-lying areas such as the south side of Front Street, won't see the highest water levels of the storm until tonight, the National Weather Service says.

"The total water level (at Nome) is expected to go up two feet by early evening and then start going down," said Bob Fischer, lead forecaster for the Weather Service office in Fairbanks. "So the threat of flooding is not over yet and it could be a little bit worse, this afternoon and this evening until later tonight."

Water levels in Nome are expected to peak about 7 or 8 p.m., he said.

The high-water surge created by what forecasters dubbed an "epic," possibly historic tempest, has not yet reached Kotzebue and Kotzebue Sound, forecasters say.

"The surge will be coming later today and tonight. Please take precautions to protect yourself!" the National Weather Service Alaska urged Kotzebue-area residents on the agency's Facebook page.

Meantime, the storm brought snow and drifts to Kotlik, south of Unalakleet. Lorena Prince with the City of Kotlik said today the water level was starting to rise at the low-lying town.

"We could tell by the ice this morning," she said. "The ice is higher."

Usually the water level is 3 to 5 feet lower than the top of the river bank, she said, but going out to look on Wednesday morning she saw that it had reached the edge of the bank.

Erosion is a major concern in Kotlik, where several homes are already poised close to the water. "A lot of houses are literally on the edge of the bank," Prince said. "Just this summer I lost about 3 to 4 feet in front of my house."

Water levels are predicted to continue to rise as the storm continues today.

The storm prompted residents in some coastal villages to head for higher ground as residents stayed the night in local school or bunked with friends and neighbors.

Other communities reported power outages, while water reached homes in Tununak, Kipnuk and Kwigillingok, Zidek said.

Water has been reported at the base of homes in Nome, but not in the buildings themselves, Fischer said.

A blowing piece of sheet metal became lodged in wires, cutting power and cell phone service on Front Stree, Nome emergency service administrator Mimi Farley wrote in an email.

Given the pitch of the warnings surrounding the storm on Tuesday, the damage may be lighter than some Alaskans expected.

"We've heard of some wind damage, roof damage, some windows being blown in," Zidek said. "But that's to be expected in a significant storm with wind gusts up to 70 to 80 mph."

The National Weather Service recorded wind gusts of up to 89 mph in Wales, 78 mph in Point Hope and 76 mph in Savoonga.

But it was the high water surge that emergency response officials were most worried about.

"(Kivalina is) one of the communities we're still concerned about and urging people there to still be vigilant," Zidek said.

Water levels were reported to be rapidly rising along the coast of Norton Sound and the Yukon Delta.

"The river is coming up," said Becky Ryan with the Unalakleet Police Department. "They've closed off some roads and are putting down some gravel to hopefully keep the water from spreading."

Some elders have been evacuated to the school, Ryan said, and conditions remained windy.

But on Wednesday morning the winds were warm.

"It's actually nice out," she said.

Meantime, Bethel-area villages on the Lower Kuskokwim River may have seen the worst of the storm, Zidek said.

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