Rural Alaska

Winds down but high water just starting as ‘exceptionally strong storm’ batters Northwest Alaska

Utqiagvik Flooding

Morning light Friday along the Arctic coast revealed the toll taken by an ongoing storm hitting Northwest Alaska, as winds began to subside but problems associated with rising water were just beginning.

Nelda Nungasak reported erosion and road closures in Utqiagvik, but it was a photo she shot and shared on social media that told a cautionary story of what residents may experience as floodwaters from storm-associated surges pushed into communities.

The photo shows white-capped waves bearing down on flooded Stevenson Street, a main road that parallels the water’s edge, as if the Arctic Ocean were moving inland.

“We’re expecting the highest water to be pretty much now through this afternoon,” said Jonathan Chriest, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, during an update Friday afternoon.

Winds along the Arctic coast were expected to switch directions and begin blowing out of the west Friday afternoon, which forecasters say will keep water levels elevated and waves rolling toward Utqiaġvik, Wainwright, Point Lay and Deering through Friday night.

The weather service extended its coastal flood warning for several communities along the coast through 4 a.m. Saturday. Water levels in communities south of the Bering Strait are expected to be back to normal by Saturday morning. Along the Chukchi Sea coast, communities in the northwest part of the state will see tides drop by the middle of Saturday, according to Chriest.

Several communities have seen water well above what’s normal, though nowhere near the level of flooding experienced during September’s typhoon system. According to the weather service, Unalakleet is reporting water 4.1 feet above its usual high-tide line, 3.79 feet above normal in Kotzebue, and 3.37 feet in Kivalina.

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“This storm is going to continue to move into the northeast and weaken,” Chriest said.

Below-freezing temperatures are forecast to descend across the region after the weekend once the low-pressure system moves into the high Arctic.

Jerica Niayuq Leavitt reported major flooding in some areas of Utqiaġvik, saying that “waves are crashing in the Sadie Neakok playground. … The operators are working diligently to protect our drinking water source by using sand bags.”

Also flooded was the Nalukataġvik, an outdoor area where the city holds its annual whaling feast, according to Leavitt.

Utgiagvik Storm

Billy Adams said that the revetment along the Utqiaġvik’s coast is “broken in places already.”

“The winds are picking up a little more so things are getting more intensified,” he said around 2 p.m. Friday.

While city and borough employees were addressing the infrastructure damage, Utqiaġvik residents temporarily lost access to some businesses and the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in the Point Barrow area, where Iḷisaġvik College is located, Sarah Brotherton said.

In Point Lay, “the storm surge has all but covered the barrier island,” according to resident Bill Tracey.

“Some of our boats that weren’t pulled up enough are flooded, as the shoreline here in town (is) completely underwater,” Tracey said. “The bluff we live on is eroding with every wave.”

Farther south in Kotzebue, flooding affected the houses on the lagoon side, including the National Guard hangar, as well as houses by the Tent City area, according to Angeline McConnell.

“We are expecting significant erosion along the coast, really from Utqiaġvik all the way down to Unalakleet,” said Chriest.

As of Friday morning, the agency had received numerous reports of damage including power outages in Savoonga that began Wednesday night; roofs and windows damaged in Kivalina; water over the east end of the old runway in Golovin; a dock damaged and seawater entering the lagoon at Point Lay; and damage to the school roof in Wales.

The winds associated with the storm had generally peaked by Friday morning, with the exceptions of Golovin and Unalakleet, he said.

The new storm comes on the heels of the destructive remnants of Typhoon Merbok, which last month left a path of destruction in Western Alaska, washing out roads and flooding homes in 40 communities along about 1,300 miles of Alaska’s coast, according to a federal summary. The storm produced hurricane-force winds, higher-than-normal tidal ranges and storm surges of up to 10 feet above mean high water.

A new chunk of $9 million in federal transportation funding was already mostly spent repairing significant road damage in Nome, state officials say.

This storm is also “exceptionally strong,” Chriest said, with west winds blowing waves onshore. The back-to-back storms are different from the usual fall storms that hit the region because they’re powerful and occurring before sea ice forms, creating a protective barrier along the coast. They’re also taking a track that puts them on the worst path for flooding.

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Warmer water in the North Pacific Ocean “is certainly a key factor as well,” he said.

Reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this story.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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