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Officials urge Western Alaska residents to hunker down in their villages

Jill Burke,Craig Medred
NOAA illustration

UPDATE:  State emergency coordinators are encouraging villagers in the path of the approaching Bering Sea storm to “shelter in place.” That’s because once the storm hits, it won't be possible to transport individuals to a different village to wait out the storm. “We are not going to fly in bad weather,” Brian Fischer, Incident Commander for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said during a “2011 West Coast Storm” teleconference with reporters late Tuesday afternoon. Fischer said his staff has been in contact with communities over the last 24 hours and that none had requested evacuation. The window for communities to make that decision is closing quickly.

The storm’s hurricane-force winds and large sea swells are expected to hit communities overnight and early tomorrow morning. In the event of a search and rescue or medical emergency, the Alaska State Troopers and the Rescue Coordination Center will be on hand to assist, and the U.S. Coast Guard has pre-positioned rescue helicopters in Western Alaska for quick response. Many villages have designated schools, recreation centers or city halls as community-wide shelters where people can stay during the storm.

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3:00 p.m.: People in communities along Alaska's western coast had begun to take shelter as a massive winter storm begins to bear down. During an afternoon briefing with the State Emergency Coordination Center, a handful of villages -- Gambell, Savoonga and St. Michael -- reported that community shelters had been opened up and that individuals were beginning to take refuge there. The village of Golovin, located in the Northern beach of Norton Sound east of Nome, is worried that if it gets major flooding it may need to evacuate residents to another village, since all of its major infrastructure is in the flood zone.

The SECC is holding daily briefings to give villages personalized access to a forecaster with the National Weather Service and contact with the state's emergency coordinators. The weather service warns that high winds and high sea levels topped with wind-driven waves have the potential to cause massive damage, forcing water to slosh inland and driving ice onto shore for the few communities that have sea ice accumulation. The storm is expected to last about a day and half, with high water levels impacting some areas for as long as 24 hours.

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12:30 p.m.: The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management warned that an Arctic hurricane-force storm aiming for Western Alaska "will be extremely life threatening" and of "epic magnitude rarely experienced," and urged all people in the area to "seek shelter now and postpone travel into the backcountry." Boat operators are also warned to immediately seek safety in port.

From the bulletin: "The storm is forecast to move rapidly northeast today and tonight with the center moving across the Chukotsk Peninsula tonight. On Wednesday the storm will take a northwestward track into the Chukchi Sea.The storm will bring extremely strong winds to all of the Alaska west coast beginning this afternoon over St Lawrence Island and beginning this evening over the remainder of the west coast, accompanied by widespread major coastal flooding and severe beach erosion over many parts of the coastline."

Read the full alert here.

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10:30 a.m.: the front edge of the storm was beginning to pound St. Paul. Myron Melovidov of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen's Association said the village was battening down. He was reached on a cell phone that was not working so well. "The weather is really howling out here, so our (phone) signal is not that good,'' Melovido said. 

Strong storms are not unusual in the Pribilofs, but Meovidov said he was already getting a little tired of them before the bottom started falling out of the latest polar low driving it toward hurricane strength. 

"It's just crazy,'' he said,"The wind here has been coming like a whole week straight,'' and now there is the warning of hurricane force winds. "It's gusting 50 now, so it's probably going to be this afternoon sometime. You can feel the winds coming up pretty steady. People are taking precautions. They're getting loose stuff died down.'' Everyone hoped to be indoors to wait out the worst of the blow by noon, but the Trident Seafood plant was still working as the storm approached. 

"We've got a couple crab boats off loading in the harbor even as we speak,'' Melovidov said, adding that "they're tied pretty good in there'' at the Trident dock. Hopefully, he said, that will be enough. Melovidov said he'd seen some big blows in the islands before with the winds pushing 80 mph. The weather service was this time predicting 85.

Moving to higher ground

Communities are bracing for the storm’s forces to hit sometime Tuesday. In Hooper Bay, at the southern end of the storm’s Alaska footprint, people are ready for the high winds and water to surge in, but are hoping they do not get the brunt of it and instead will get smacked with the tail end.

People have started moving boats to higher ground and getting prepared to be self sufficient. City Manager Bosco Olson Sr. had stockpiled 30 gallons of water and 11 gallons of stove oil by Tuesday morning, an effort he said reminded him he had better get in shape for winter.

Like most of the state’s western coastline, the Bering Sea village of Hooper Bay does not yet have its protective winter sea ice. “That’s not good. Too much open water,” Olson said in an interview Tuesday. At the time Hooper Bay was just beginning to receive patchy snowfall and visibility was still good. “I’m hoping it will be a regular storm that we will have. I’m not too worried. We will do okay.”

Further North, the city of Nome was hustling to get its emergency operations center in place and broadcast warnings over the local radio stations. The alerts warn people, especially those with beachfront and low lying property, to secure propane tanks and anything else that could get carried away in a storm. City personnel are also warning people to be prepared to quickly leave their homes in the event word comes down to evacuate, a situation which will be initially evaluated Tuesday afternoon.

Historic Front Street, along which Iditarod mushers famously glide to the finish beneath the iconic burled arch, is among the neighborhoods expected to flood. Many businesses have already closed in anticipation of the coming weather, and the school will close early for the day, said Mimi Farley, public information officer for Nome’s incident command center.

Farley said by the end of the work day, 5:00 p.m., the city is expected to be lost amid white out conditions and blowing snow -- zero visibility – with flooding expected to hit in the middle of the night.

“We just don’t know how severe it is going to be yet,” she said.

Shelter space is being set up in the city’s recreation center, and most boats in the harbor have been pulled out of the water.