Alaska News

Storm barrels into western Aleutians with hurricane-force winds

Gusts up to 96 mph hammered the remote island of Shemya in the western Aleutians on Friday morning as a strong storm barreled into the Bering Sea.

Forecasters said the "exceptionally strong storm," formed from the remnants of Japan's Typhoon Nuri, was moving into the open Bering Sea, far away from population centers. A hurricane-force wind warning for the region is in effect until 9 a.m. Saturday.

Much of the forecast was unchanged from Thursday, when warnings emerged of very strong winds and waves up to 50 feet, said Joe Wegman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. The U.S. Coast Guard spent the day preparing for the storm and urging mariners to keep an eye on weather reports and take shelter.

On Friday, Shemya, in the far western Aleutians, was reporting sustained winds of 70 mph with gusts up to 96, according to reports. The island is the site of Eareckson Air Station, a U.S. Air Force facility.

About 120 civilian contractors are currently stationed on Shemya, said Tommie Baker, community relations chief with the Alaskan Command Public Affairs Office. Friday afternoon, the contractors were in a "Phase 1" lockdown, the highest stage of alert, Baker said. That means people were locked inside buildings, with no authorized transit in or out.

With plenty of advance warning, the station was well prepared to face the storm, Baker said. By the time the winds hit, loose items, from dumpsters to vehicles to 55-gallon drums, had been secured.

"They had plenty of notice to get ready for this," Baker said.

Baker also said the ferocity of Friday's storm was not necessarily an anomaly. Shemya sees an average of six high-wind events a year, marked by winds blowing above 70 mph.

No storm-related injuries or distress calls had been reported as of late Friday afternoon, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Diana Honings, spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard 17th District Public Affairs in Kodiak. The Coast Guard sent an MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter normally based at Air Station Kodiak to be on standby in Cold Bay, and an MH-65 helicopter was parked in a hangar in Dutch Harbor.

On Sunday, after the storm has quieted, the Coast Guard will conduct a fly-over to assess damage, Honings said.

The storm was expected to be at its strongest far out over the open Bering Sea Friday night, Wegman said. But it's expected to weaken Saturday while moving eastward, staying north of the Aleutians.

Wegman emphasized that the storm is not expected to come anywhere close to the mainland.

"Even coastal communities, other than seeing some really high waves, are not going to see anything out of the ordinary," Wegman said.

He said the storm is also unlikely to break the state record for lowest recorded barometric pressure, set in 1977 in Dutch Harbor.

"One, we don't think it's quite strong enough," Wegman said. "And secondly, there aren't any barometers out there (in the Bering Sea) to measure it."

Aleutian communities to the east, such as Adak, won't see the biggest impacts until Saturday night. But by that time, the storm will have weakened considerably, Wegman said.

On Adak, an island community of fewer than 300 people, the weather was calm Friday morning. City employees were at work and school was in session.

Winds and rain picked up later in the day, and children were let out early, at lunchtime.

"It's nothing we haven't seen before," said Adak harbormaster Cal Kashevarof, speaking by phone from a fuel farm. "But it seems to be a lot stronger than I thought it was going to be."

Visitors to Adak as well as residents were being warned to stay away from the east side of town, where high winds could strip debris off abandoned, dilapidated houses, said city manager Layton Lockett.

Out on the seas, fishing vessels and cargo ships were giving the area a wide berth Friday. Ed Page, a retired Coast Guard officer and executive director of Marine Exchange of Alaska, a Juneau-based vessel tracking and safety organization, said good forecast information helped crews avoid being caught by surprise.

"Fortunately, so far, things seem to be going well," Page said. "No one is in distress, broken down or in harm's way."

A number of vessels are currently hovering around the Alaska Peninsula, waiting until the storm abates, Page said. Others are taking routes much farther south or north of the Aleutians Islands than normal.

The storm system will push freezing air into much of the Lower 48 next week, according to the National Weather Service.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.