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Monster storm bears down on rural western Alaska

November 8, 2011 |  6:49 pm

Bering sea weather warnings

The tiny frozen villages of western Alaska are bracing for what is being described as a monster storm, stretching 750 miles across the Bering Sea and moving in Tuesday night with hurricane-force winds, whiteout blizzards and punishing storm surges.

The always-turbulent Bering Sea, the gloomy northern waterway between Alaska and Russia, already had 28- to 35-foot seas by Tuesday afternoon; the full brunt of the storm overnight was expected to reach towns like Nome, Kivalina and Kotzebue -- remote rural communities far from help -- with winds gusting to 75 mph.

"Alaska west coast to be hit by one of the most severe Bering Sea storms on record," the National Weather Service warned in a bulletin. "This will be an extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm of an epic magnitude rarely experienced."

Some stores, bars and inns were boarding up windows along Front Street in Nome, where it was 27 degrees with wind gusts of up to 50 mph Tuesday afternoon, even before the brunt of the storm hit.

"There's not much to say at this point. We're getting prepared for it, and it is on its way," Nome's harbor master, Joy Baker, said in a telephone interview.

In the town of Kivalina, population 377, which recently built a new seawall to help protect against storms, the owners of a new clinic not protected by the structure were piling sandbags outside against the expected storm surges that could sweep in overnight.

Wendie Schaeffer, incident commander for the storm for the Northwest Arctic Borough, said community officials there had elected not to evacuate the fragile town, deciding instead to set up a shelter at the community school in case people are forced to flee their homes.

"Because of the projected severity from the National Weather Service, it is of concern, and we have taken numerous preventive measures in each of the communities in the borough," Schaeffer said in an interview.

State officials have been holding teleconferences with communities up and down the coast over the last two days and have offered assistance with preparations and potential evacuations, but have warned local officials -- if they didn't know it already -- that no evacuation help will be available once the storm hits.

"Aircraft will not be flying in the weather we're expecting to get in the next 24 to 48 hours," Bryan Fisher, chief of operations with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said in a teleconference with reporters.

He said three towns -- Gambell, Savoonga and Saint Michael -- already had set up shelters and moved in a small number of residents in preparation for the severe weather.

Big autumn sea storms are a fact of life in western Alaska. But a storm of this severity probably has not been seen since 1974, said Jeff Osiensky, regional meteorologist in Anchorage for the National Weather Service. "We really need to be careful with this storm. It is a very serious-type condition," he said.

Complicating the situation, officials said, is the fact that the sea ice that often settles in along the coast by mid-autumn is not present, leaving coastal villages vulnerable not only to snow driven at hurricane force, but waves and sea surges. Sea levels are expected to rise 7 to 9 feet above normal in Norton Sound and the Bering Strait coast, federal meteorologists said.

"The presence of sea ice can sometimes act to protect coastal areas," Osiensky said, but "one of the things that's different from 1974 is we have a minimum of sea ice along the coast."

Officials said the most severe weather was expected from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta north into the Arctic. Along the coast of the Chukchi Sea -- where, incidentally, the Obama administration on Tuesday proposed to expand offshore oil drilling -- winds gusting to 90 mph are expected.

The Weather Service said "major coastal flooding" and "severe beach erosion" can be expected along many areas of the Bering Strait coast, Norton Sound, St. Lawrence Island and the Chukchi coast as far as Point Hope.

Most of these areas are remote and hard to access on a good day. Now, said Jeremy Zidek, public information officer for the homeland security division, state officials must wait for the storm to pass and see what they will need.

"While the area is sparsely populated, the folks out there are very remote, and any type of damage to their infrastructure is difficult to repair," he said. "It can be a real hardship to their community."

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Map: Severe storm warnings issued for western Alaska and the Bering and Chukchi seas. Credit: National Weather Service

 

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