Bering Sea storm is as powerful as Category 3 hurricane
The monster storm hurtling across western Alaska is the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane in more tropical climes, authorities said Wednesday as surging seas flooded low-lying parts of Nome and left remote communities to the north bracing for high water.
"It's on the line of a pretty destructive hurricane, and we know from experience what a Category 3 would do in the Lower 48 in terms of damage. This is something that would be on a par with that," National Weather Service warning coordinator Jeff Osiensky told reporters Wednesday.
Though winds that had gusted up to nearly 90 mph began to subside slightly, weather forecasters said a combination of remaining high winds, rising tides and storm surge could drive water levels along some areas of the coast up to 10 feet above normal -- potentially flooding low-lying villages in the path of the strongest winds.
"The worst won't be over until this storm is completely dissipated and everything is returned down to normal levels.... This is not a closed event. It's very much open," said John Madden, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Authorities are worried about villages such as Kivalina, a town of 427 people near the Chukchi Sea that sits on an 8-mile-long barrier reef. Plagued with steady erosion from past storms, the reef has shrunk to just 27 acres.
Thousands of feet of rock revetment have been installed over the last few years to shore it up, and while the revetment appears to be holding, it does not protect the entire village -- the airport remains exposed, said Colleen Swan, a City Council member and operations manager for the town.
Forecasts for a change in wind direction as the storm moves west toward Russia raise the possibility of flooding on the ice-covered lagoon that lies on the inland side of the village, "and that will flood the low-lying areas of the village, a few houses on the north side of the village," Swan said in an interview.
An emergency shelter has opened in the school and some elders and families with young children spent the night in it Tuesday, she said.
"We're doing pretty good, considering," she said. "It's been very stressful not knowing what to expect."
Residents along the coast have posted videos and photos all day of the crashing surf and wind-driven snow that have assaulted the entire coastline from the Yukon Delta up into the Arctic. The video below, shot on Little Diomede Island on the watery border between Russia and the U.S., shows a container being tossed about like a toy in the raging surf and an excavator surrounded by water on what is normally a roadway.
The National Weather Service said the low-pressure zone at the center of the storm was expected to gradually weaken and move northwest toward Wrangel Island in Russia by late Thursday.
"We're looking for the winds to subside a bit as the system weakens. However, the surge, the piling of water along the ocean, will continue over the next 12 to 18 hours," Osiensky said. "So even though the winds will die down, the water levels will remain quite high over an extended period of time. It's still going to be very critical in a lot of communities."
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Storm-driven waves pound the shore near Nome, Alaska. Credit: Scott A. Johnson
Video: Crashing surf on Alaska's Little Diomede Island. Credit: Mckay Enterprise