Alaskans weather epic Bering Sea storm

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 9, 2011 

A giant Bering Sea storm with hurricane-force winds roared up the western Alaska coastline Wednesday, sending waves over storm barriers, knocking out electricity, flooding parts of some villages and leading to evacuations. But as of Wednesday evening, officials had heard no reports of injuries nor massive damage.

There were reports of buildings damaged, roads under water and major beach erosion, and authorities emphasized Wednesday night that the worst hadn't necessarily passed, with water still rising in some communities and warnings still in effect through this morning.

In Nome, the largest city in the path of the storm, peak water levels arrived at about 6 p.m. and began a slow decline, the National Weather Service said.

"Waves are coming over the east end of town there over the road, with small debris," said Stephen Kearney, a meteorologist for the Weather Service. The seas rose about 10 feet above normal levels, with water spilling to the door of the mini convention center and flooding a street near the small boat harbor, he said.

While videos of the storm showed angry waves pounding the edge of the city, the Weather Service had received no other initial reports of damage from the evening flooding.

"Nome is A-OK. They've closed their shelter down," said Bryan Fisher, incident commander with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, at about 8:30 p.m. "They're closing their emergency operations center down for the evening." But storm waters were still rising elsewhere along the northern coast Wednesday night as families in village after village left their homes and took refuge in local schools, prepared for the worst.

Flooding in the Kotzebue Sound village of Deering forced evacuation of about 100 people to the school, Fisher said. That's nearly everyone in the village, according to state population estimates.

Police in Point Hope reported flooding in that northwest Alaska village, with water within 10 feet of the airport, along with a power outage and widespread evacuation to the school, Kearney said.

Minor flooding also was reported in villages across the state, including Shishmaref, Kwigillingok, Kipnuk, St. Michael, Stebbins, Scammon Bay, Tununak and Unalakleet, according to the state emergency operations center.

The Weather Service issued flood warnings for eastern Norton Sound and the Chukchi Sea Coast through 6 a.m. today.

"Our concern is really in the northwest part of the area, with the way the winds are," Fisher said. "Kivalina, Shishmaref and those areas we're focused on over the next few hours."

Kivalina, population 400, which sits on a thread of land facing the Chukchi Sea. There, gusts approaching 70 mph bullied snowmachiners as they tried to ferry residents to shelter on icy roads.

In the beachfront village of Wales, about 110 miles north of Nome, chefs prepared tuna casserole for storm-watch refugees and villagers watched movies on laptops at the schoolhouse.

Mayor Frank Crisci suspected late-night waves, already lapping at the school garage, to damage the washeteria or maybe 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 said.

(Earlier, winds gusted to 89 mph in the village, according to the National Weather Service. Imagine the sound of a freight train, Crisci said.)

Weather Service officials said communities 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.

"When these things line up, and the winds line up, you have your greatest threat potential," said Jeff Osiensky, the weather service's regional warning coordinator. "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 would 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 had already reported water in town early Wednesday, said David Kang, an official with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The state expected more communities to report water damage as the evening progressed, Kang said.

"We're still in the midst of this," Kang said Wednesday afternoon.

The state continues to monitor several villages with periodic power outages, Kang said.

Nunam Iqua on the Lower Yukon River lost electricity for several hours Wednesday morning, said resident Alphonsus Pete. Snowdrifts buried snowmachines and rising water floated a smokehouse into the river.

"We're in the middle of trying to rescue all the boats," she said early Wednesday.

Meteorologists have said the Alaska storm may be the worst in 40 years.

Osiensky, the National Weather Service official, compared the tempest to a Category 3 hurricane.

"It went particularly far north, for such a strong storm, so the impacts were much larger than what we would typically see up here in Alaska," he said.

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