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North Pacific 'super storm' makes its way toward Western Alaska coastline

Jill Burke,Craig Medred
Photo courtesy Sandra Quinn

On the edge of the vast emptiness between North America and Russia, the remote Pribilof Islands -- the Galapagos of the North -- were among the possible targets for a brewing Arctic hurricane. National Weather Service officials in Alaska spent the day monitoring weather sensors as a pair of polar lows converged and began to gather strength south of St. Paul and St. George, the two biggest islands in the five-island chain some 200 miles offshore, about 750 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.

Monday evening, the weather service posted a "hurricane force wind warning (for) Tuesday." Winds built overnight from less than 20 mph to 50 mph by Tuesday morning. Storm trackers forecast winds really intensifying, up to 65 knots -- 75 mph -- by Tuesday afternoon. That's into the Force 12 hurricane range on the Beaufort Wind Scale, which warns of structural damage with winds as low as Force 9 and notes Force 10 winds are of such force they are "seldom experienced on land. (Expect) trees broken or uprooted, considerable structural damage."

                   Seas as high as three-story buildings

If the winds weren't enough, the weather service warned that seas that batter the islands were likely to build to 32 feet -- higher than many three-story buildings. Imagine walking through an average American suburb where the waves rise higher than all the houses around you. The people of the Pribilofs were getting ready as best they could. Few live there.

Less than 450 people live in St. Paul, the largest community in the islands. Nearby St. George is home to but 102. Most are Alaska Natives who struggle to eke out a living from commercial fishing or tourism.

Tanadgusix Corp., a village business formed after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, opened a new hotel just six years ago on St. Paul to try to house tourists who come to the island from all over the world to view its unique collection of summer bird life. The windswept island is also home to a relatively new fish processing plant, but a lot of the 175 structures in St. Paul date back to shortly after World War II, when Aleuts who had been evacuated from the islands were returned from internment in Southeast Alaska to help the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries manage fur seals. St. Paul Island is also home to a Russian Orthodox church more than a century old. Sts. Peter and Paul Church was built in 1907 and added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Though the Pribilofs were shaping up as ground central for an Alaska version of The Perfect Storm, there were concerns about high winds and coastal flooding developing all over Western Alaska. A weather service map of the region was smeared with red warnings and yellow weather watches from Shemya and Adak in the Aleutian Islands chain, north, for more than 1,000 miles to the Seward Peninsula and beyond.

'One of the worst' storms on record

Everywhere along that vast stretch of coast, Alaskans were readying as best they could for what was widely expected to be a brutal beating from Mother Nature. The storm was considered life threatening. National Weather Service forecasters were predicting the area could be in for one of the most powerful storms ever to originate in the North Pacific. Coastal residents along the Bering and Chukchi seas were urged to "not delay in taking needed precautions for this unusually severe and potentially life-threatening storm.

"This is going to be one of the worst storms on record over the Bering Sea," said Bob Fischer, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Alaska. "Essentially the entire west coast of Alaska is going to see blizzard and winter conditions -- heavy snow, poor visibility, high winds."

Some communities north of the storm center were expected to face some of the greatest risk. Low-lying villages like Hooper Bay and Kivalina could be threatened by further coastal erosion and flooding.  Alaska's State Emergency Coordination Center was on alert and had begun mobilizing its personnel. "We are actively monitoring the situation. We are preparing for this storm as though it is going to be a potential problem," said Jeremy Zidek, public information officer with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Emergency coordinators wanted plans in place in case evacuations become necessary or power supplies are damaged by high winds.

Schools close, villagers advised not to travel

The storm canceled travel plans for about 200 young wrestlers who had been headed to Unalakleet for a tournament Tuesday. All were to instead remain in their home villages. The Bering Strait School District decided to postpone for a week the competition for fourth- through eighth-graders. The district didn't believe the children would be endangered, but if the storm hits hard, residents will need to deal with flooding or power problems rather than out-of-town guests, said Jeff Erickson, activities director for the district.

The storm is being likened to one that struck in 1974, which drove water 5 feet deep into low-lying portions of the old gold-mining community of Nome and caused $12 million to $15 million in damage. Fischer predicted winds could gust to 90 mph in coastal areas. The combination of high water levels and wind-driven seas creates much of the potential for destruction.

"We expect widespread beach erosion and coastal flooding," on St. Lawrence Island, in Norton Sound and along the entire Bering Strait coast, he said. "All of these areas are going to see very high waves pushing water on to shore."

The harsh weather is expected to last through Wednesday. Conditions could improve Thursday.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com and Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com