Update: This story has been updated with a newer article here.
A powerful, historic storm continued to batter a huge swath of the Western Alaska coast Saturday, causing severe flooding, evacuations, power outages and wind damage to communities throughout the region.
No fatalities, injuries or missing persons had been reported by Saturday night, but many communities were underwater and without power as the storm approached its peak.
As the massive storm, the remnants of a Pacific typhoon, barreled north across the Bering Sea, it pounded villages from the Kuskokwim River delta to the Bering Strait. By late afternoon, it was moving into the Chukchi Sea.
By all accounts, the storm has so far been among the worst the region had experienced in many years, according to residents, meteorologists and disaster officials, who say it will take days and weeks to understand the full extent of the damage.
By Saturday evening, significant damage and flooding had been reported in dozens of communities in Western Alaska, including Golovin, Hooper Bay, Nome, Shaktoolik, Unalakleet, Newtok and Kotlik.
The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management had received multiple reports of essential infrastructure damage, water within communities, outages, serious flooding and limited communication as the storm continued to move through the region, according to spokesman Jeremy Zidek.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration Saturday, describing the storm as “unprecedented.”
“We’re going to move as quickly as we can to provide relief, to provide recovery, to provide the essentials that people need,” Dunleavy said. “And so we’re taking this very seriously.”
The state’s Emergency Operations Center is actively monitoring the entirety of the region, a vast stretch of coastline and low-lying river areas that stand to be severely impacted.
The storm had begun to weaken Saturday evening as it moved into the Chukchi Sea, said Bobby Bianco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Fairbanks office.
Still, widespread gusts continued to reach 30 to 50 mph in the Norton Sound region, Bianco said around 5 p.m. Saturday.
“Sea levels are still rising, but they are nearing their peak,” he said. “So we are almost to that point where the waters begin to slowly recede.”
‘It was never this severe’
In Golovin, on the northern side of Norton Sound, some homes had floated off their foundations amid major flooding and water has surrounded the school.
The majority of Golovin’s 150 or so residents live up on a hill. But more than a dozen homes are located in the lower-lying part of town that’s been flooded, including the home of Sierra Smith, a 33-year-old resident who had to evacuate early Saturday morning. She’s now sheltering at the local school with around a dozen other displaced residents.
At 7:30 a.m., she was told that the water had risen to the school steps. “I panicked a little bit,” she said by phone Saturday afternoon.
The water levels have since fallen some, and Smith said as far as she’s heard, everyone’s physically safe at the moment. But she said that at least a few of her neighbor’s houses floated away.
She posted a video to social media of her nieces and nephews having to be evacuated from their two-story home by four-wheeler after their home lost power and temperatures fell.
Smith was told that the water was expected to rise a few more feet through the afternoon and into the evening, and her biggest concern at the moment is having enough safe drinking water — especially since the community has been on a boil water notice for the past month.
Clarabelle Lewis, the facility manager for the tribal government, the Chinik Eskimo Community, has never experienced a storm like this in the 20 years she’s lived in Golovin.
“We’ve had flooding in the past a few times, but it was never this severe,” she said. “We’ve never had homes moved from their foundations.”
To the east, Shaktoolik was hit hard by the storm and surging water Friday night. There was debris reported throughout the town, but no homes were lost. Mayor Lars Sookiayak said residents from the village of just over 200 people evacuated to shelter in the school Saturday morning.
The surging waters and storm destroyed a berm built by community members out of driftwood and earth to protect the village from storms and coastal erosion. It had stood since 2014 between the Bering Sea and a row of houses, just a few feet away in some cases.
”That was a pretty hard one to take,” Sookiayak said. “Pretty heartbreaking.”
He added that it was surprising to see that the berm had been destroyed in a single storm as it had withstood so many others. Now, a focus will be on rebuilding.
Another concern for Shaktoolik is further south at the site of where the village once stood. There is a narrow isthmus between the Bering Sea and the Tagoomenik River, where the community gets its fresh drinking water.
Sookiayak said he traveled to the old village site earlier in the day and saw the ocean breaching its banks into the river, and was worried the community would become an island.
”We’re gonna go to a second round tonight and it’s gonna get dark soon,” Sookiayak said. “So, we could all use some prayers.”
‘It was pushing everything around’
To the southwest in Hooper Bay, on the Bering Sea coast with a population of over 1,300 people, some families were evacuating and social media posts showed water surging toward some dwellings with roads underwater.
Nearly 300 people had sought shelter at the school in Hooper Bay, vice principal Brittany Taraba said Saturday evening. She said the storm brought community members together, with some residents donating moose meat to help feed evacuees.
“Spirits are pretty high, all things considered,” she said. “There’s a lot of us who have been up for going on 48 hours now.”
Taraba — who’d only gotten around three hours of sleep herself — described the frightening experience of leaving her home early into the storm to help open the school as an evacuation site Friday night.
“The wind gusts was picking grown adults off the ground,” she said. “It was pushing Hondas around, it was pushing everything around. I mean, you could see the windows kind of bending and buckling as the wind gusts would hit them. So there was definitely moments of, will this house still be standing in the morning?”
Describing a few houses that had moved off their foundations, Tribal Chief Edgar Tall told KYUK Public Media that he had never seen a storm like this.
“Not in my whole life,” Tall told KYUK. “Some people that are older than me, since they were children.”
The head of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, Bill Stamm, told KTOO that several of the 58 communities AVEC serves have been affected by outages and storm damage.
In particular, reaching Hooper Bay is AVEC’s top priority because of damage at a tank farm, Stamm told KTOO: Sheen was seen in one area, a tank was leaning and there were worries that nearly empty tanks could float away.
Bianco, with the National Weather Service, said they’d received reports that the road to the airport in Hooper Bay had water on it, but was still passable.
In the nearby community of Chevak, former mayor Richard Tuluk said they’d experienced a very windy night, power outages and substantial flooding, but everyone seemed to be safe.
“We’re glad that our neighbors in Hooper Bay made it through the night,” he said. “They were the ones that we were really concerned about.”
Bryan Fisher, director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that as of Saturday night, state officials were aware of around 450 residents in coastal communities who were sheltering in local schools.
On the lower Kuskokwim River, the town of Napakiak was under 4 to 5 feet of water, raising concerns about riverbank erosion, City Council member Walter Nelson and local contractor Job Hale told KYUK.
But they said residents were able to prepare for the storm with outreach from the tribe and city, and advanced warning. Following recommendations, many residents had moved their ATVs and vehicles to roads that are built higher than the rest of the community, and while there’s water under nearly every home, Hale told KYUK that few had flooded.
The storm’s impacts on Kuskokwim River communities extended as far inland as Bethel, where parts of the east side of town saw some flooding, KYUK reported.
State response and assessment
Earlier in the morning, Gov. Dunleavy said on social media that he had “verbally declared a disaster for communities impacted” by the storm hitting Alaska’s western coast. He and other state officials described the storm’s impacts and the state’s response during a news conference Saturday night in Anchorage.
Dunleavy said his administration is in “assessment mode” to determine the extent of the damage caused by the remnants of the tropical storm, which is continuing to hit communities across almost 1,000 miles of Western Alaska coastline.
There are concerns that the storm, which started reaching communities in Northwest Alaska on Saturday evening, could have destroyed infrastructure like fuel tanks, and water and sewer systems, in addition to private homes. The next day or two will be spent analyzing the scale of the damage and planning how to start addressing it.
The governor was joined by Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, head of the Alaska National Guard, who said that “a military response” would likely be needed. There are fixed-wing planes and helicopters in place to help with any immediate evacuations that could be required, he said.
Saturday was spent calling community leaders across the Western Alaska, asking: “What do you need? What do you anticipate you will need?” Saxe said.
The Dunleavy administration said it is in talks with officials about making a federal disaster declaration, which would potentially unlock more resources.
After the storm subsides, emergency response officials will assess what personnel and resources to activate based on community needs.
“Much of the support that the state will be able to provide will become a little more clear after the storm and the damage assessments are complete,” said Alan Brown, spokesman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and Alaska National Guard.
The storm comes just a few weeks before the traditional start of freeze-up in Western Alaska. That’s adding a sense of urgency to getting the assessment process finished and repairs underway and done.
”We can’t take our time. Nobody can take their time,” Dunleavy said.
The Association of Village Council Presidents, representing dozens of tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, on Saturday called on the state to activate the National Guard to assess the storm’s damage to infrastructure ranging from roads and airstrips to water tanks and power plants. The tribal consortium also requested that the state to establish a task force to address affected communities’ short- and long-term needs.
“Lives, livelihoods, and communities are at stake,” association CEO Vivian Korthuis wrote in a letter addressed to Dunleavy.
Taraba, the vice principal in Hooper Bay, described a need for critical infrastructure like electric and sewer lines to be repaired quickly.
“For people that have damaged houses, it’s really critical for things to move quicker than they normally do out in the Bush, so that people have a nice, warm place come winter,” she said.
As of Saturday night, the state Department of Environmental Conservation had received reports of just one fuel tank lost in the storm, when it was hit by a house floating away in Nome, said commissioner Jason Brune. A 50,000-gallon fuel tank that came loose in Hooper Bay was empty, Brune said. However, the department won’t have a comprehensive understanding of damage to fuel and water infrastructure for some time as flood waters recede.
The Alaska Community Foundation said late Saturday that it had set up a Western Alaska Disaster Recovery Fund to provide support for communities affected.
Reaching ‘the crest’
In Gambell, on the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, the waves “put on a show” but had died down by early Saturday afternoon, said resident Chassity Booshu.
”No damage, but someone’s boat did get crushed. Power was on throughout the storm also,” Booshu said.
In Nome, officials believed they were nearly done with the worst of the flooding by midday Saturday.
“We’re close, we think, to the crest here. We’re not gonna see the water go up much more,” said Mayor John Handeland.
Streets and roads throughout the town were submerged, including on the way out to the airport. Handeland said while there is debris around the runway, it was not covered with water.
But access roads that connect numerous subdivisions to the central part of town are currently impassable, Handeland said, some even sheared of their pavement.
“River Street is a river,” Handeland said as he drove past Dry Creek, “which isn’t dry.”
Ed Plumb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, said in an update Saturday that “the surge we’ve seen at Nome has actually surpassed the superstorm of 2011 and also the great storm of 1974 that impacted the southern Seward Peninsula coast.”
By Saturday evening, water levels in the area were still the highest they had been in nearly 50 years, Bianco said.
In Nome, Handeland said that overall, the flooding is similar to other major storm events in 2011 and 2004, although he noted that since then, many of the most heavily impacted areas have been fortified and still appear to be under comparable duress
An unoccupied house belonging to an elderly couple and used primarily for storage had dislodged and floated down the Snake River before getting wedged against a bridge.
“It’s starting to fall apart, I think it’ll come apart on its own,” Handeland said from his truck while observing the structure. “It won’t damage the bridge.”
Handeland said he’s been in contact with Alaska’s congressional delegation and state officials. Though a few fuel tanks, containers and a gold dredge had gotten loose as the town’s small-boat harbor got covered with flood water, overall Nome was well prepared for the event.
“I think right now Nome’s pretty self-sufficient with our volunteers,” Handeland said. “We’re doing OK, there’s not anything we’re needing at this point in time.”
The storm hitting Western Alaska is what’s left of what was Typhoon Merbok, which formed farther east in the Pacific Ocean than where such storms typically appear.
On Saturday morning, the center of the storm approached the Bering Strait out of the Bering Sea and toward the Chukchi Sea, the weather service reported.
Plumb said midday Saturday that “we are currently having our peak water levels with coastal flooding over portions of the Y-K Delta and Norton Sound,” with water levels expected to keep rising in the afternoon “as we see the peak of the storm in northern Norton Sound.”
The storm had begun to diminish in intensity by late Saturday as it traveled north through the Bering Strait, according to Bianco.
Emergency officials expected to see the storm’s impacts spread later Saturday to communities farther north, such as Shishmaref, Kotzebue, Kivalina and other communities in the Northwest Arctic Borough.
Coastal flood warnings remained in effect for many areas through Sunday, with high wind warnings in effect until late Saturday evening. Storm warnings have been posted at sea to warn mariners of extremely dangerous conditions.
Water levels in Nome were likely to top out at 8 to 11 feet above high tide, according to the weather service. In nearby Golovin, water levels were set to be even higher, pushing 9 to 13 feet above their normal high tide level but beginning to recede throughout Saturday evening and into the night, the weather service said.
As they wait for a clearer picture of the damage to emerge, state officials on Saturday night highlighted how community members had come together to take care of their neighbors during the storm. But for those wanting to help from a distance, Fisher with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management advised: “Cash is king.”
While officials appreciated Alaskans offering goods and services to their fellow residents in need, he stressed that that’s not needed at the moment.
“The most important thing that you could do right now is provide financial donations or cash donations to reputable charity organizations such as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army Alaska,” he said.
Daily News multimedia journalist Loren Holmes contributed. Material from the Associated Press, KYUK Public Media, KTOO and Alaska Public Media was used in this report.