Apprehension turns into relief as epic storm moves on

WESTERN ALASKA: Some villagers say conditions didn't quite live up to the hype.

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 10, 2011 

The superstorm that tore across Western Alaska this week vanished to the north Thursday, leaving behind 37 communities reporting some combination of flooding, wind damage, power outages and evacuations.

It also left behind a sense of relief. Billed as one of the biggest, baddest weather events to hit the Bering Sea in 40 years, the storm had resulted in no reports of major damage and no injuries as of Thursday afternoon, according to the state.

At least one storm-related death remained a possibility, however, as volunteers on four-wheelers scoured a jetty in Northwest Alaska looking for a 26-year-old Teller man who troopers say may have disappeared Wednesday among the crashing waves and high winds. (See story, Page A-10).

The storm battered treeless tundra villages throughout Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, cutting power in some communities and silencing cellphones in others. Families in several villages fled to school classrooms and gyms for refuge.

Thirty or 40 people evacuated low- lying areas in Golovin, said a spokesman for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Winds tore at roofs in Point Hope, where villagers assembled at Tikigaq School and greeted the blizzard warning Wednesday night with traditional drumming and dancing.

"We started (dancing) at 7 p.m. and they canceled the warning about 9:30," said Adela Lane, village liaison for the North Slope Borough. "When we finished and people went out again it had calmed down."

Nonetheless, 393 people -- more than half of the community -- spent the night at the school, said Lane. Lacking heat and power at home, people continued arriving throughout the night.

Lane thought damage might have been worse if a natural barrier of ice hadn't formed along the shore. The frozen breakwater was between 6 and 8 feet high, she said.

On Thursday, flood and erosion warnings along the coast faded away as villagers in Norton Sound, St. Lawrence Island and north to the Chukchi Sea coast began taking stock of the damage.

By 5 p.m. Thursday, Point Hope remained the only village where people were still seeking emergency shelter, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Emergency Management division.

"They plan to keep the shelter open until power is restored," he said.

'WE'RE FINE'

Bonita Barr with the Native Village of Deering, on the north side of the Seward Peninsula, said she saw readings of winds at 69 mph early Thursday morning, but the town of 122 people came through in good shape. Preparations were made to evacuate people to the school, but that turned out not to be necessary.

"We're fine," she said. "But we did have high waters."

The road to the airport was under water for three to four hours overnight, she said.

In the barrier island village of Kivalina, a rock revetment built in 2008 and 2009 defended against the waves as many residents took shelter at the school.

"It was one huge slumber party," said Colleen Swan, an emergency responder for the village.

Swan said there were reports of huge winds through the night but no initial signs of major damage.

Water appeared to go over the lowest lying areas, with the town dumpsite between the sea and the lagoon flooded, she said.

Swan said school personnel who made arrangements for emergency shelter did a remarkably good job. "I applaud their efforts and organization," she said.

Gov. Sean Parnell on Thursday praised village and city leaders across the coast with rallying to thwart additional storm damage or injuries.

"Local community leaders have done an excellent job preparing for the storm, and making sure the lives of their neighbors and loved ones were protected in the best way possible," Parnell said, according to a statement issued by the governor's office.

State officials continued to man an operations command center in Anchorage on Thursday, but were scaling back efforts even as they planned to send teams to survey damage in coastal communities as early as next week.

NOME RECOVERS QUICKLY

As the weather service issued a series of strongly worded warnings of the approaching tempest earlier this week, heavy news coverage and countless Facebook updates and tweets amplified its violent reputation. Stoked by predictions of hurricane-force winds and near-record storm surges, Alaskans planned for the worst.

For Sean Knudsen of Nome, the storm proved less impressive than expected.

"I think a lot of the news frenzy was kind of making it up to be this terrible disaster is coming, and it wasn't anything that we haven't been through before," said Knudsen, assistant manager for the Aurora Inn.

Seawater and debris splashed across the city sea wall Wednesday night, with reports of damage to two homes and two commercial buildings, according to the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

But Knudsen said he drove easily Thursday along Front Street, the iconic roadway that serves as the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and saw few problems beyond some asphalt ripped away by the water.

"Nome recovers pretty quick after a storm," he said.

With wind speeds approaching 90 mph in the Bering Strait and unofficial reports of gusts of 93 mph in Little Diomede, the storm's wind speeds lived up to expectations, said John Lingaas, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

This year's storm, which the National Weather Service likened to the power of a category 3 hurricane, was often compared to an infamous 1974 Bering Sea storm.

Asked if the comparison held true, Weather Service meteorologist Julie Malingowski looked to Nome, the largest city in the path of the 2011 storm, for comparisions.

In '74, water levels peaked at about 12 feet above normal in Nome, Malingowski said. Wednesday night, water levels in the 2011 storm peaked at about 10 feet above normal levels.

"It was a little bit stronger (back) then, as far as the effects in Nome go, but I think the overall effect of the storm was similar," she said.

Another way to measure the strength of a storm is by barometric pressure.

In general, the lower the pressure, the greater the storm. Both the 1974 storm and this week's storm had similar barometric pressure measurements -- about 970 millibars, as of Nov. 12, 1974 and 6 a.m. Wednesday, respectively, Malingowski said.

Either way, the superstorm was history, she said. By Thursday afternoon, its center wandered roughly 500 miles northwest of Cape Lisburne and was still on the move.

"It's out of here," Malingowski said.


Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

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