Bering Sea storm slams Alaska: Brutal winds, white-out blizzards
Western Alaska was reeling Wednesday from what the National Weather Service called an "epic" Arctic storm from the Bering Sea that blasted remote coastal towns with winds of up to 89 mph and white-out blizzards.
Residents from the Yukon Delta to Point Hope huddled in homes and makeshift shelters at schools as buildings on shaky permafrost foundations swayed, roofs in a few places blew off and powerful waves from the Bering Sea began surging toward shore.
"Basically right now we're getting the brunt of the storm. I live in a townhouse, and my house is literally shaking. You can actually feel it. It's like a continued earthquake," Keith Greene, acting city manager in the Arctic village of Kotzebue, said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning.
"Let me open the door so you can hear it," he said, holding the phone into a creepy blast of whistling and thudding.
In Nome, Fire Chief Matt Johnson said wind gusts hit 61 mph in the early morning, with some flooding of the west end of the town's main thoroughfare -- and the wettest was yet to come.
"We've had some storm surge and we've had some water, but we haven't reached the high-water mark yet," Johnson told The Times. "The worst is probably over from the wind side of things, but from the water side, we've yet to see it."
Power went out to about half of Nome for about an hour Wednesday morning after a blowing piece of sheet metal lodged in power lines, but crews scrambled to quickly restore service. A local cellphone tower lost service for about an hour, residents said, and the town's 911 service wasn't available for parts of Tuesday night, when the brunt of the storm hit land.
"If you tried calling 911, you'd get 'Your call cannot be completed,'" Scott A. Johnson, a resident of Nome, told the Times. "But all things considered, it's not bad. I have a radio tuned in to our local emergency responder frequencies, and haven't heard any reports of injuries so far. So I think that's a great blessing."
The 750-mile-long storm is one of the most powerful ever seen blowing in from the Bering Sea. By mid-morning, the center was just northwest of the Bering Strait; it was offering a brief lull to residents who had passed a tense night.
"We don't see storms like this very often. I would say it has lived up to the hype," Andy Dixon, National Weather Service meteorologist in Anchorage, said in an interview.
"What we're seeing now is the winds turn more southwest, so there's been a brief lull in the weather. Now it's going to get worse again for several hours before it starts to get better for good, before the storm ultimately weakens and heads off to the north," he said.
As winds diminished, storm surges and rising water posed the biggest danger.
"Our initial concern with this storm was the storm swell, and that still is a real danger," said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which has activated a 24-hour-a-day emergency operations center for the storm. "We're trying to notify people that while the skies may begin to clear a little bit, there still is significant danger down by the coast."
State officials said damage to homes appeared to be minimal so far, in part because Alaska's coastal villages are accustomed to severe storms and most homes are built on elevated platforms. Zidek said the state had received sporadic reports of blown-out windows and blown-off roofs, along with some flooding of homes, but had not been able to complete a full assessment because of the difficulty in reaching all the potentially affected villages.
"It's tough to reach them after they've been probably all night long dealing with the storm. Things start a bit later in those far-flung rural communities," he said.
Residents up and down the coast reported blowing snow that made it hard to see across the street and whistling wind.
Johnson, in Nome, posted a video on Twitter that showed the lamp fixture in his apartment swaying and waves crashing into the town's seawall. Carol Seppilu in Nome posted images of the swirling snow outside her house.
"It was very much similar to being on an airplane and being in turbulence. The whole house was swaying and literally shaking," Johnson said. "But it's not unusual for us to have big winter storms. This one is just a bit more unusual than most. They're saying it's one for the record books."
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Children play near the harbor in Nome, Alaska, as a powerful storm approaches from the Bering Sea. Credit: Peggy Fagerstrom/Associated Press