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Western Alaska reels from winter flooding as another storm bears down

Alex DeMarban,Megan Edge
Ice buildup from coastal flooding in the Western Alaska community of Kotlik. Nov. 11, 2013
Patricia Okitkun photo
Ice buildup from flooding in the community of Kotlik. Nov. 11, 2013.
Patricia Okitkun photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo
Flooding in the community of Kotlik, Alaska, November 2013.
Velvet McCambridge photo
Damage from flooding that occurred during a winter storm in November 2013.
Mike Joseph photo

Even as villagers scramble to recover from a devastating storm that ripped into Western Alaska over the weekend, preparations are being made to prepare for another meteorological onslaught blowing in from the Bering Sea.

The new storm should barrel in from the west later today packing 50 mph winds and screaming over St. Lawrence Island before striking the mainland on Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service said.

"Things should start cooking for them tonight," said Michael Kutz, a forecaster with the National Weather Service Alaska based in Anchorage.

The brief lull in the fall storms is complicating response efforts, with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management unable to fly in to villages to assess the damage, said Jeremy Zidek, a public information officer for the state division.

"We understand that there is a lot of damage that has occurred, however there is also another storm that is coming in," he said. "We won't be able to really assess the damage until that storm is over and it is supposed to run until Thursday."

Norton Sound villages are still reeling from the storm surges on Saturday that flooded homes, destroyed water and sewer lines and wiped out boardwalks and sea walls.

One of the hardest hit villages was Kotlik some 500 miles west of Anchorage, where the losses include damaged snowmachines, battered boats and subsistence meat like whale blubber. Now, with the next storm looming, village leaders are having trouble convincing elders to leave their home for safety and shelter at the local school.    

"We are trying to evacuate elders and families with children to the school, but some of the elders are refusing to leave their homes," said Kotlik Mayor Thomas Sinka.

Some of the elders are not well enough to travel across the Kotlik River and others feel a deep responsibility to protect their property.

"It is a pretty emotional time, right now," said Sinka. "People are crying. I mean we have seen storms, but even some of the elders say they haven't seen something this bad."

Kotlik, a village of some 600 residents, has already filed a disaster declaration with the state, Zidek said. Unalakleet and Stebbins also plan to file declarations, he said.

Devastation from the massive storm was aided by unusually warm temperatures in the Bering Sea that prevented wave-dampening sea ice from forming as it normally has this time of year, said Kutz.

Though nothing like Super Typhoon Haiyan that wreaked havoc at roughly the same time thousands of miles away in the South Pacific, the latest Bering Sea storm damaged villages along a swath of coastal Alaska hundreds of miles long.

Among the most important losses in Kotlik is the food -- like moose, whale, seal and salmon -- that washed to sea or was contaminated by water mixed with sewage and diesel fuel. Also, food stores in indoor freezers spoiled when the power shut off over the weekend, a troublesome development for a village where store food is expensive and minimal.

"Families able to preserve food will share, but it's not much," said Sinka. "We will be hunting again when the storm passes, and we will be hunting hard in January and February when it is legal to take moose again."

Fellow Alaskans are trying to help out. Jeanie Greene, creator of Heartbeat Alaska, a TV show that explores the state's remote villages, donated 12 turkeys to Kotlik.

"It is food for the soul," said Greene. "The turkeys are already there and they will take them to the school and start cooking."

Greene added that she is currently trying send turkeys to Stebbins, a community of about 556 also hit hard by the storm.

In Anchorage, family members of those affected by the storm are working to raise awareness, too. A sign-waving rally at the corner of Northern Lights and Minnesota drew about a dozen people Monday afternoon in an effort to let motorists know the villages were suffering.

Rally organizer Windy Shipton, raised in the storm-battered village of St. Michael, said the tales of the destruction are haunting, but the people are being resourceful. "Everyone is just in survival mode. You know? How do we make it through the next storm?"

Shipton is also working to gather things like water, blankets and jackets to send to Western Alaska. People can also help Kotlik by donating at any Wells Fargo bank to the Kotlik Flood Relief Fund.

Up the Norton Sound coast from Kotlik, Unalakleet on Tuesday was racing to repair its damaged water system and a long section of rock wall destroyed by the storm, an outcome that now puts some homes at increased risk of flooding.   

The good news for Unalakleet is that the incoming storm is arriving from the west, a trajectory that should help keep storm surges down in the village, said city administrator Scott Dickens.

Workers in Unalakleet are rushing to repair a 700-foot section of buried pipe, using old pipe left over from a section damaged during freezing temperatures in the spring, he said.

"That pipe has been all over the place," he said.

The 2011 Bering Sea superstorm had damaged a storm barrier that once protected that pipe, but the village was unable to locate paperwork in time required to get federal funds to help rebuild it, said Dickens.

Dickens, new to his job, said he has since found that paperwork, but is waiting for regulators to respond to his appeal. If the funding had arrived, the water pipe might have been spared, he said.

As for the next storm, its "initial direct hit" will extend from southern Norton Sound down to Hooper Bay, said Kutz.  

The storm will ultimately deliver some warmth to the Alaska mainland, with areas such as Anchorage due for freezing rain perhaps Wednesday evening.

"Just when you were ready to put your ice skates away and break out the skis," he said.

Other storms that could reach Alaska are building in the Pacific, too, he said, including one that may form from the dying breaths of Typhoon Haiyan.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com. Contact Megan Edge at megan(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @megtedge.