Rural Alaska

Storm causes flooding, erosion across Northwest Alaska

Whenever there's a storm warning, Kivalina holds its breath.

"I would say we kind of dodged a bullet there," local resident Fran Douglas said of the storm that brought strong winds to town but didn't damage any infrastructure.

A coastal flood watch was in effect for the village over the weekend, with storm surges of up to 5 feet expected to bring water right up to town. The National Weather Service predicted southwest winds of 25-35 mph shifting northwest by Sunday.

"We kind of lucked out. We had southeast winds and it changed to west-northwest," Douglas said. "That's going parallel with the island, so we didn't see too much damage. … If we had those winds directly south, we would have had more damage and seen more flooding."

The house closest to the beach, right up at the end of the town's rock revetment, had ice chunks deposited on its doorstep by the waves, but that appeared to be the visible extent of the impact.

"The rock revetment is doing its job, it looks like to me, but it's still changing the dynamics of the island," Douglas said.

Farther south, the village of Deering was not so lucky.


"Yesterday we came over to do an assessment of the high-water flood storm," said Northwest Arctic Borough Deputy Director of Public Services Dickie Moto, who grew up in Deering. "They lost a lot of ground on the front and on the back side of town because of the high water and rough seas. What they lost could be anything from 10 to 15 to 20 feet of beach. The beach is actually right at the road, now, where it washed out. It's low tide so it just shows how much washed out all the way to the road."

The road to the airport is accessible now, he said, and didn't sustain significant damage because there wasn't any real current to the water, which kept the road intact.

The town itself, though, saw significant flooding on all sides — which brought with it serious erosion.

"The high water got right to the houses, right to the foundations on Front Street," Moto said. "The high water took a lot of people's stuff away. It impacted a couple of local shops, took their foundations off. We've seen they are trying to make repairs."

Moto hasn't seen a storm like this hit the village since he was a kid, he said. He remembers having to evacuate with many of his neighbors to the old gold mining camp at Utica because of a severe storm back in the 1970s.

In some ways, it's the possibility for precisely that kind of evacuation that keeps Kivalina on its toes.

Right now, one of the evacuation routes for the village is along its shoreline. Locals could ride out on four-wheelers if leaving by boat is not an option.

However, these fall storms have been encroaching on that sandy path, making safe escape routes harder to find.

While fall storms like these often batter coastal communities like Kivalina, spring thaw is usually what takes its toll on Deering.

"Spring breakup's been impacting the road to the village due to high water and ice jams there," Moto said. "Now, this fall, we have this high-water surge that impacts the community and the actual spit."

Because freeze-up is already happening around the Northwest, much of the repair work for Deering will have to wait until spring, when workers can truck in supplies and get to fixing damaged foundations once the ground thaws a bit.

"(Then) they can haul gravel to fix their problem to replace the washouts on the front beach and also in the back," Moto said. "When we did the assessment (Monday), I got work to do ahead of me to see what more could we do. Right now, they're sitting idle on what they can do because of funding."

Locals are hoping they'll be able to finance the repairs when the time comes around. So far, local governments have been lending what assistance they can.

"The loader down in Deering — the city's loader — we brought a mechanic over to assist in the repair," said Moto. "We're thankful to get a mechanic from the city of Kotzebue to take with us."

While it wasn't hit nearly as bad, Kotzebue itself is assessing the damage it sustained from the high winds that accompanied the high water.

"The only damage that's been noticed was roofing blown off our pole barn at the fairgrounds due to high winds," said Kotzebue Police Chief Eric Swisher.

The 6-foot seas pushed storm surge onto a handful of streets around town. Certain roads were temporarily flooded, but locals said it didn't seem like any were completely washed out.


"Our streets crew had the streets that were covered with water cleared and open by 7 a.m. (Monday)," Swisher said.

While some communities fared better than others during this recent storm, each town in the Northwest is aware of the risk.

Sometimes you just have to "batten down the hatches and wait," said Kivalina resident Douglas, and always hope for the best.