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Bering Sea storm leaves trail of damage in Western Alaska

  • Author: Alaska staff
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published November 9, 2011

Update (8:03 p.m. Alaska time): Little Diomede

A raging sea outside Little Diomede swept away shipping vans filled with construction materials as if they were Legos. The school's principal hopes that doesn't put the project - a school remodel - on hold ...

Update (7:25 p.m. Alaska time): Scammon Bay

The mega storm left a trail of damage in the Southwest Alaska community of Scammon Bay, peeling roofing and siding off a couple of houses, causing a power outage and flinging a 40-foot container van into a lake.

"That's going to be fun getting that out," said George Smith, a search and rescue volunteer in the Yup'ik village.

Smith, put in charge of assessing damage in the community, said no one was hurt.

But smokehouses collapsed. A large living room window crashed into a house. The metal roofing on one side of the parsonage peeled off, slamming into power lines and briefly knocking out power Tuesday night. Several feet of skirting ripped off one side of a house on pilings.

"I know of one boat that probably sank. We haven't seen it yet or found it yet," he said.

Ice littered the road, and an empty fuel tank tipped over.

"It's just a mess," Smith said.

Update (3:05 p.m. Alaska time): Point Hope

With power out across the village of Point Hope and some 500 residents seeking shelter at the school, a North Slope Borough "critical-action team" is headed to the Northwest Alaska village of 700 to help.

"We're hoping to get Point Hope back on line," said Frederick Brower, risk manager for the North Slope Borough.

The team of at least nine people plans to fly out from Barrow on a chartered airplane as soon as the weather -- blowing at least 45 mph in America's northernmost community -- presents a safe window, Brower said.

He's heard no reports of injuries in Point Hope. "People are safe, but poles are down," he said.

The team includes power linemen, mechanics, school district officials and others to help repair damaged lines, restart the power-dependent water and sewer system, and assist with providing food and water at Point Hope school.

Winds are currently gusting up to 85 in the Inupiat village, located southwest of Barrow, Brower said Wednesday afternoon. Power has been out since about 3 a.m. this morning, he said.

"Due to high winds, a small shack or something crashed into a pole and took out the pole," he said. The school still has power and heat and residents are continuing to flock there. "Due to continued no power for over close to 12 hours now, I imagine places are getting colder and they're heading to the school for warmth," he said.

Update (1:50 p.m. Alaska time): Kivalina

Families and elders took refuge in the school, sections of metals roofs peeled off, and gusts snuffed out stoves as the storm pounded Kivalina in Northwest Alaska last night, but the worst may not be other.

Wind-bursts up to 90 mph were expected Wednesday night, and if the winds shift to come from the southwest, as forecast, then the lagoon will flood, said city administrator Janet Mitchell.

So far, the storm inflicted minimal pain on the Inupiaq community that sits on an 8-mile barrier island. Winds were gusting above 60 Wednesday afternoon.

Because of the village's precarious location and eroding shorelines, it was considered especially endangered in reports issued by the National Weather Service.

"We've sustained a little damage in individual homes," Mitchell said. "Parts of roofs are being torn off, and I lost my rain gutter last night. It's on its way to Siberia."

Lots of wet snow fell on the village, and the city will declare a disaster today, she said.

"We're about to declare a disaster because now we're expending funds to address the situation, we're clearing the roads, and we'll have to declare a disaster so we can get reimbursed," she said.

It was a long night for Mitchell, who monitored reports of the storm from her city office past midnight and at one point, at least, ventured to the coastline to see how a new rock revetment built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was holding up.

There was no flooding in town. Slush that gathered on the coast, after an elder prayed for it, might have dampened the waves, she said.

Still, plenty of elders and others fled their homes for the school, the most elevated building in town, just to be safe. Mitchell went this morning, and saw families lining hallways and sleeping in classrooms.

She arrived just as the fire alarm screamed. Sleepers leapt to their feet. Probably kids playing a prank, she said.

The school's closed Wednesday, and storm victims are expected to hunker there for one more night, she said.

To help with dinner, Mitchell hauled hunks of moose to the cafeteria.

"I brought over the caribou, the ribs with the spine and a shoulder blade and that should take care of them this evening," she said. "I asked the elders to make the soup for themselves and they agreed because they are hungry."

Update (12 p.m. Alaska time): Nome

Blowing debris knocked out power in Nome, including cell phones, for much of Wednesday morning.

Here's an update just sent by Mimi Farley, the emergency services administrator in Nome:

Containment operations are ongoing as the City of Nome's Emergency Operation Center continues to monitor the winter storm. Nome Joint Utility Crews are out and about dealing with issues associated with the weather.

A blowing piece of sheet metal got lodged in wires and caused a power outage on downtown Front Street in the vicinity of the Kegoayah Kozga Library. The outage has resulted in the loss of cell phone service and texting capabilities.

Once daylight breaks, visual inspections will begin and current damage assessments will be made. When more information is available another update will be released.

Update (11:05 a.m. Alaska time): Scammon Bay

Floodwaters that swept quickly through Scammon Bay piqued the village's anxiety last night, but they didn't turn out to be dangerously high, said John Ereyuk, the village public safety officer.

"I wouldn't say it's pretty big flooding, but it got some people concerned because of how fast it came. But it ebbed last night about 12:30," he said.

This morning, the community was still dealing with the storm, Ereyuk said late Wednesday morning. Apologetically, he said he had to hustle off the cell phone. "I'm in heavy equipment right now," he said over the hum of machinery. "I'm helping people move boats because the tide is coming up real quick here."

Update (10:35 a.m. Alaska time): Tununak

When the power blinked out in much of Tununak last night -- around the time the mega-hit TV show "Glee" was filling screens -- a call for evacuation forced scores of residents to flee for safety at the local school and houses on the hill.

The warning spread late night after a power-plant worker decided winds were too high and dangerous to repair lines. The electricity remained out late this morning in the Yup'ik village of about 300, said Barbara Dean, a traveling principal mentor working at the village school in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. "They went house to house and by VHF telling people to evacuate," said Dean.

A blown fuse caused a power outage, said Meera Kohler, head of the state's largest electric cooperative in rural Alaska. The Yup'ik village perches on an edge of land, and the Bering Sea swelled halfway up the village seawall with waves sometimes crashing over. Dean didn't know if flooding had reached the lower part of the community, because last night the school became an island of warmth. And who wants to leave that for a storm?

"It was really, really windy," Dean said. "No roofs came off but it was strong enough you worry about the safety of children."

Late into the night at the school, artists worked with kids. Educators set up games for families to play. Everyone had food and water, plus power courtesy of the school's generator. Bedtime was 11 p.m., and pancake breakfasts greeted the refugees this morning.

The maelstrom was so strong that school ended early yesterday so parents could get kids home. It started late this morning, at 10 a.m. Winds were light this morning, but local officials are still wary of potential flooding if the winds switched to blow in from the south, she said.

Dean, who lives part of the time in the hub city of Bethel, said the storm left her happily stranded in Tununak. She's enjoying the community bonding left in its wake. "When events like this happen, it shows how strong the people are in supporting each other," she said. "They went house to make sure people are safe. They brought elders to warm places, people cooked and they checked in on each other."

Update (9:15 a.m. Alaska time): Hooper Bay

Floodwaters swept through the Southwest Alaska village of Hooper Bay and a power outage locked three-quarters of the city in blackness much of Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning as winds rocked power poles, but fears that a monster storm would cause major problems were a little overblown for some.

"I was expecting to die, that's what I was expecting" based on Facebook warnings from friends across the state, said Bianca Tinker, a 20-year-old dispatcher at the police station in the village of more than 1,000.

In the end, no one was reported hurt in the Yup'ik village -- nor any other town along Alaska's west coast that was ravaged by winds and rising water.

With calmer winds this morning signaling that the worst had passed, Tinker said Hooper Bay had survived worse storms, including one not long ago with similarly high winds.

This time, gusts peaked at 70 mph and temperatures rose slightly above freezing as the storm dumped rain through the night, said Sgt. James Hoelscher, village public safety officer.

The power went out for about four hours until close to midnight, and those without backup generators used candles, cell phones and computers to light the dark.

Roads flooded with water surging off the Bering Sea, but not houses or buildings. Like many villages, homes are elevated to keep them off the soggy permafrost, said Tinker.

"It was regular fall flooding," said James Hoelscher.

And the village was prepared, with outside possessions lashed down, boats moved to high ground and several village officers patrolling the roads after school to shepherd kids home through the winds.

"We're Alaskans and this kind of stuff isn't out of the ordinary," said Hoelscher. "We're prepared for it."

Update (7:30 a.m. Alaska time): Bob Fischer of the National Weather Service Bob Fischer said Wednesday morning that western Alaska residents aren't out of the woods yet.

"It's still really nasty. It's not over yet. There's a lot of time remaining for more flooding and damage to occur," he noted.

Coastal flood warnings are still in effect for the same areas as yesterday – the entire coastline along Norton Sound and the Bering Sea coast, Chukchi Sea coast up to Point Hope. (Get the full slate of the latest warnings and watches, here, from the NWS).

It will continue to be quite windy today over all areas, Fischer said, but the strongest winds will be felt in the morning Wednesday, and they may diminish to 35 to 40 mph over the course of the day. The water is going to continue to rise in Norton Sound and stay at very high levels into Wednesday night, he said.

In the Nome area, Fischer said reports on the ham radio there were that widespread power outages hit for a while overnight, some cars went in the ditch, and roofs have been at least partially blown off several houses and water at the base of a lot of houses. Blizzard conditions were in effect at Nome from the middle of Tuesday evening to early Wednesday morning, he said but now visibility is up to one mile. The power was out for at least several hours overnight, and estimated winds gusted to as high as 61 mph.

Fischer said water has been reported at the base of a lot of low-lying houses in Nome, is spreading over the sea wall, and high seas and waves pushed some water into town. High tide overnight Wednesday is expected to be about 7-1/2 feet, and tides are expected to rise about 7 feet higher than normal tonight, which will bring total water level to about 8 feet

"Water levels in the Nome area are going to say quite high through much of the night," Fischer said.

High water levels will continue through all of Norton Sound through tonight and into the morning. Major coastal flooding and beach erosion is expected in many areas around the Norton Sound coast.

"Kivalina is still going to be in severe danger from coastal flooding and severe erosion," Fischer said. That community sits on a little spit of land out in the ocean, just a couple feet above sea level.

"This storm has produced very strong winds (across) a widespread area," Fischer noted about the list of communities affected by the storm since Tuesday:

  • Kivalina – Severe weather conditions are occurring now and will continue. Highest wind gust so far in Kivalina 72-73 mph.
  • Point Hope – Wind speeds as high as 79 mph.
  • Wales – Very strong winds overnight – highest gusts reached 89 mph.
  • Teller – Maximum winds about 72 mph.
  • St. Lawrence Island – Savoonga continues to be very windy, with maximums of 76-77 mph
  • Gambell – Maximum winds near 70 mph.
  • Eastern Norton Sound – Unalakleet has had maximum wind gusts about 68 mph.
  • Golovin – Some peak winds in the upper 60s.
  • Koyuk – Overflow along the beach, tide still rising.
  • Shishmaref – Quite windy there but no damage or injuries. Some land lines are out.
  • Elim – Water reported to be steadily rising overnight.
  • Report (6:30 a.m. Alaska time):

    The historic Bering Sea storm everyone's been talking about since Tuesday has begun to batter the coast of western Alaska, with the Bering Strait, Seward Peninsula, Norton Sound and Yukon Delta areas expected to take the brunt of it. Current forescasts expect the storm to continue through Wednesday and diminish by Thursday.

    The National Weather Service's latest forecast (at 5:35 a.m. AKST) keeps coastal flood warnings in effect until Thursday morning for the Chukchi Sea coast, southern Seward Peninsula, eastern Norton Sound, Yukon River Delta, St. Lawrence Island, and Bering Sea Coast. The NWS predicts that the storm surge will peak in Nome on Wednesday evening.

    The Alaska Division of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management has posted a summary map on its Facebook page,with detailed information about flood danger, ice shoves, and expected flood surges across the threatened area.

    The NWS has also analyzed the central surface pressure of the storm as of Wednesday night and found it at 944 millibars as it passed west of St. Lawrence Island. That pressure result is as low as a strong hurricane's would be at lower latitudes. For comparison's sake, Hurricane Ike's lowest central pressure reading in 2008 was 935mb, and it made landfall at Galveston, Texas, reading 950mb as a high Category 2 hurricane.

    Unconfirmed reports have been filling the Twitter feed "#AKstorm," as locals, government officials and media figures send live updates. The unconfirmed buzz there is that heavy winds have knocked out power and telephone service to some communities, a few roofs have blown off and at least one house has collapsed. Reports of water reaching some low-lying homes in Nome, Tununak, Kipnuk and Kwigillingok have also been registered. But again, Twitter reports should be considered conditional.

    Via telephone with Alaska Dispatch, Bryan Fisher, Incident Commander for the Alaska Division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that the Alaska Emergency Coordination Center has been in touch overnight with a number of communities in the storm's path. All of them are experiencing some degree of significant wind, but not much is known about the storm surge.

    Fisher says as of the most recent contact, "The communities were all prepared to hunker down and ride it out."

    Fisher confirmed that his agency got reports from NWS at about 2:30 this morning that water has reached low-lying homes in Tununuk, Kwigillingok and Kipnuk, and that water levels were rising at the Yukon River Delta community of Scammon Bay.

    He said there have been reports of intermittent power and 9-1-1 system outages in Nome, and Alaska Village Electrical Cooperative reports that outages have happened in the Yukon-Kuskokwim villages of Hooper Bay and Tununuk as well.

    Meera Kohler, President of AVEC reported via email Wednesday morning that the outages in Hooper Bay and Tununuk were due to blown fuses. At last contact, residents in both communities were advised to go to the community shelters until the winds died down.

    There have been no injuries reported, says Fisher, adding that the storm's impact will be fuzzy until later in the day Wednesday, after daybreak allows better assessment, which is typical. "We don't expect to get new information until sunlight hits," he said

    Fisher said that DHSEM will conduct routine calls with state and federal agencies in the morning and that the next major call between it, the NWS, state agencies and all of the villages will be at 2:00 p.m. to get information on statewide damages and the latest weather reports.

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