Evacuations have begun in some Alaska coastal communities, including Nome (see below), ahead of a powerful storm that's moving across the Bering Sea toward the western Alaska coast. The storm, packing hurricane-force winds, has the potential for coastal flooding, extensive beach erosion and serious damage, according to the National Weather Service.
"This will be extremely dangerous and life threatening storm of an epic magnitude rarely experienced," the Weather Service said in a bulletin earlier today.
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We'll be posting updates here through the day. Click here for the latest NWS warnings and advisories. If you're experiencing the storm, we'd like to hear from you. Email reporter Kyle Hopkins at email@example.com or call 1-800-478-4200 ext. 334.
In Kotzebue, the hub city for a collection of largely Inupiat villages in northwest Alaska, the city and borough planned to urge residents tonight to stay inside, acting city manager Keith Greene said. "One of our concerns up here is people walking through the snow and getting lost."
Even during garden-variety storms, winds and blowing snow can blind travelers on the outskirts of the city. The mega storm is expected to whip gusts as fast as 90 to 100 mph, Greene said. The message for Kotzebue residents will be "stay indoors, don't leave home for the next couple days," he said.
-- Kyle Hopkin / adn.com
With winds predicted to reach as high as 70 miles an hour, coastal villages were buttoning down on Tuesday. Travel advisories were being issued and flights were cancelled throughout the Norton Sound region. An indication of just how seriously people were taking the threat was the postponement of a big regional school cheerleading and wrestling tournament in Unalakleet."This is the most precaution for a storm that I've seen people take," said Jay Thomas, principal at Unalakleet's Frank A. Degnan School, who has been living in the region for nine years.
The mayor and city council had met with school district officials to formulate emergency plans, he said. Elders had been evacuated from the low-lying beach front to houses at higher levels. Local stores had donated bottled water and other supplies to stock the school in the event that people have to take shelter there.
"Right now it's the calm before the storm," Thomas said on Tuesday night. "There's not much wind at the moment. We're expecting it more tomorrow. Most of the schools in the (Bering Strait School) District have cancelled school tomorrow. A few cancelled today and Teller evacuated (Monday)."
In St. Michael, south of Unalakleet, authorities were preparing to house residents in the city offices, said Dolores Otten with the City of St. Michael. The main concern was for people who would lose electricity to their homes in the event of a power outage "The city office is the old school," she said. "We have a gym and generator backup."
Situated on a protected bay with a general elevation of 26 feet, St. Michael is somewhat sheltered from predicted storm surges predicted to push sea levels 7 to 9 feet above normal, according to a weather advisory from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Alice Fitka of St. Michael said many residents were storing water in their homes in the event that the water lines had to be shut down. "Everybody's being precautious," she said. "Some people are boarding up their windows, people who live on the bank.
Residents of nearby Stebbins, a village more prone to flooding, had been invited to wait out the storm in St. Michael, she added.
With an elevation of 7 feet, Emmonak at the mouth of the Yukon River, was keeping a close eye on the water level. People were busy putting their boats up and away from the shore, said assistant city manager John Murphy.
"We're in the process of getting our flood plans ready," he said. "We're talking to the school and clinic about evacuation and the National Guard is standing by. If worse comes to worse, we move people to the high school."
The Yukon has frozen to a depth of about 1 1/2 inches, Murphy said and, as of Tuesday night, there was no sign of rising water.
Murphy added that there was more concern for the nearby villages of Kotlik and Nunam Iqua, which are even lower than Emmonak.
.-- Mike Dunham / adn.com
5 p.m.: Update: "It's so big. It covers 750 to 1,000 miles."
Coastal communities are expecting to be hit hard by a massive Bering Sea storm this afternoon and evening, according to state emergency response coordinators.
Many Alaska forecasters, with decades of experience analyzing the state's extreme weather, are calling it the most powerful storm they've ever seen, said Jeff Osiensky, regional warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. High water from the storm surge is expected to be worse than in past major weather events due to a lack of shore-fast sea ice along most of the coast, Osiensky said.
Wind is expected to reach 50 to 75 mph for much of Westen Alaska, with gusts of 90 to 100 mph in some places, according to the weather service.
"It's so big. It covers 750 to 1,000 miles almost in breadth. It's a huge storm," Osiensky said. "These things get named hurricanes down south and get a category. It's that magnitude."
And the response in many communities has been similar to that seen in hurricane-prone regions of the Lower 48, said Bryan Fisher, incident commander with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
For example, people are boarding up windows on some buildings on Front Street in Nome, Fisher said. Three communities -- Gambell, Savoonga and Saint Michael -- have set up evacuation centers in case residents need a safe place to sleep, Fisher said.
Any decision to evacuate to a shelter would be made at the local government level, Fisher said.
Evacuation of the communities to inland areas was unlikely, he said.
"That would have to occur prior to the storm coming," Fisher said. "In the middle of the evening, with the associated high winds and the coastal storm surge that's expected, there likely would not be evacuations of communities to the interior or away from the coast."
"Aircraft will not be flying in the weather we're expecting in the next 24 to 36 hours," Fisher said.
At least 20 communities from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the village of Point Hope are expected to feel the storm's effect, according to the state emergency response coordinators.
Fisher said he thought the 24 hours or so warning that was given to towns and villages was enough to prepare for the massive storm. Still, state emergency responders were standing by to help in the storm's aftermath, whether by assessing damage and providing supplies or aiding in possible search-and-rescue efforts, Fisher said.
The best case scenario would be minimal damage, Fisher said. The worst case would be severe damage in multiple communities and prolonged impact to travel to and within the towns and villages, he said. -- Casey Grove / adn.com
3:45 p.m. update: Front Street in Nome ordered evacuated
The city of Nome this afternoon ordered the evacuation of the south side of Front Street and other low-lying areas, a spokeswoman says.
With seas of 15 feet and a projected storm surge of 7.5 feet expected overnight, the city has ordered people to leave low areas for the next 48 hours, a spokeswoman said.
Acting City Manager Chip Leeper ordered the evacuation at about 3 p.m., said Mimi Farley, city emergency service administrator. Officials are asking people to leave homes and businesses on the south side of Front Street by 6 p.m.
Other low-lying areas including west F Street, Port Road and west beach also are being evacuated, she said. A nearby recreation center will serve as a temporary shelter, Farley said, although people are being asked to stay with friends and family if possible.
"The most recent weather update shows seas building to 15 feet by midnight, and an accompanying storm surge of 7.5 feet, resulting in a combined wave height of 22.5 feet," Farley said.
"That's about five feet above the seawall," she said. As a result, the city expects waves and standing water to reach Front Street, which spans the length of the town.
Farley could not immediately say how many people will be evacuated.
-- Kyle Hopkins / adn.com
3:05 p.m. update: Evacuations in Teller
About 75 people in the Seward Peninsula village of Teller have evacuated the low-lying old town site and are staying with friends and family on higher ground about two miles away, school teacher Jan Delaney says.
"We're right on the ocean. ... At times it's kind of scary when you think about the water coming over, coming down the hall of the school," Delaney said.
The move began following a Monday night community meeting, she said, and volunteers have been watching the shoreline and helping people get to higher ground ever since. About 230 people live in Teller, according to the state.
In the St. Lawrence Island village of Gambell, village leaders are poised to move elders and children to the local high school roughly three-quarters of a mile from shore.
"The weather is kind of picking up right now, but slowly," said Clinton Booshu, general manager for the Gambell tribal council. The evacuation will begin as soon as the wind and surf worsen, he said.
The evacuation plans are just part of a flurry of preparation taking place across Western Alaska today as villages and towns brace for the coming storm. In the Unalakleet-based Bering Strait School District, teachers are planning on ways to keep kids busy if families are forced to stay in the schools, while the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel is preparing to send village public safety officers to Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta towns that call or help.
About two dozen communities were expected to join state officials and others in an emergency planning call that was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m.
-- Kyle Hopkins / adn.com
2:45 p.m. update: Kivalina prepares
As the wind picked up Tuesday afternoon in Kivalina, so did fears in the Chukchi Sea village that residents' homes would be inundated with water through the night, said Colleen Swan, an information officer working with emergency personnel in the village.
Kivalina's school, elevated on strong pilings, is being prepared to house the village's 420 or so residents if needed, Swan said.
A victim of coastal erosion in recent years, Kivalina sits at the tip of a narrow, 8-mile barrier island northwest of Kotzebue. National Weather Service forecasters expect a storm surge of 2 to 5 feet above the maximum tide there. And while about 100 women, children and elders evacuated Kivalina ahead of another huge storm in 2007, that wasn't in the village's plans Tuesday, Swan said.
"At this point, there is no chance of an evacuation by air, because the flights are already canceling," Swan said. An evacuation by boat would also be impossible, because the lagoon to the east, between the island and the mainland, is frozen, and the ocean to the west of the island is too rough, she said.
"I think our window of opportunity for an evacuation off the island has closed," Swan said.
Still, an evacuation might not be necessary this time around, Swan said. Since 2008, a 14-foot rock wall has protected the village fuel tanks that feed power generators, she said.
-- Casey Grove / adn.com
1:15 p.m. update: "It's starting to shake my house now."
In the Pribilof Islands village of St. George, 72-year-old Anthony Merculief is looking out his window today as shingles on a neighboring roof flap in the Bering Sea wind.
"I hope the older buildings don't blow over on our house," he said, gusts surging above 50 mph. Local leaders have closed city offices and the village store, where evidence of today's mega-storm has already reached the village of about 100 people.
Merculief's son, Chris, lives on the south side of town where he tied down his barbecue grill in anticipation of the storm. Chris suspects gusts were beginning to top 65 mph as of about 12:30 p.m.
"It's starting to shake my house now," he said.
The Pribilofs, volcanic islands far off the coast of Southwest Alaska, are no stranger to powerful storms. Racing winds damaged four or five village roofs about two years ago, and today people are staying inside to stay safe from flying debris, Chris said.
"It's too dangerous to be out," he said.
-- Kyle Hopkins / adn.com
12:15 p.m. update: The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has activated an emergency operations center in Anchorage to track the storm and work with towns and villages as high seas and powerful winds arrive along the coast, officials said.
As many as three disaster response teams are on standby to aid coastal communities, while the division planned to talk to people from about two dozen towns at 2 p.m. today, according to state spokesmen.
Emergency management officials talked with about 20 Western Alaska communities on Monday afternoon, with leaders in many towns making preparations such as securing fuel tanks and readying evacuation shelters for the storm, said division spokesman Jeremy Zidek.
-- Kyle Hopkins/ adn.com
11 A.M. update:
A life-threatening Bering Sea storm was roaring north today at about 60 mph, with hurricane-force winds expected in some areas in Western and Northwest Alaska.
"It's going to be one of the worst in history," said Bob Fischer, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks.
Already, the storm has whipped winds to about 80 mph this morning in areas including Shemya Island in the Aleutians. But forecasters warn that some of the greatest danger will come later in the day as the storm hammers all of the Alaska's west coast and continues north.
Widespread coastal flooding and severe beach erosion is expected along parts of the Bering Sea coast, the eastern and northern shore of Norton Sound, the Bering Strait coast and Little Diomede Island, among other areas.
"Winds are going to be spinning up on St. Lawrence Island this afternoon and spinning up along all northern west coast areas this evening," Fischer said this morning. "It's coming. It's almost here."
Among the National Weather Service warnings:
• Winds of 60 to 70 mph are forecast for Nome, along with major beach erosion and coastal flooding, Fischer said. Water will rise 7 to 8 feet above normal levels, he said.
• At Kivalina, a village on the tip of a barrier reef on Alaska's northwest coast, water is expected to rise 2 to 3 feet above normal sea levels with winds as high as 65 to 70 mph and gusts to 90 mph, Fischer said. "The wave action alone will cause substantial damage there, as well as winds."
• Severe wind damage also is forecast for Savoonga, a St. Lawrence Island village that is protected from coastal flooding because it's on the north side of the island, but where winds will gust to 90 to 100 mph.
• High sea levels in Norton Sound will cause coastal flooding in low-lying areas along the southern shore, the weather service says.
All areas along Alaska's west coast should prepare for extremely strong winds. The storm is considered life-threatening because seas of 15 to 25 feet could overturn small boats and widespread blizzard conditions over much of the west coast could strand backcountry travelers, Fischer said.
As of about 9 a.m., the center of the storm was about 600 miles southwest of St. Lawrence Island, the weather service says. It is heading northeast today and tonight, with the center expected to move across the Chukotsk Peninsula tonight.
On Wednesday, the storm is expected to head northwest into the Chukchi Sea, the weather service says.
Here's a region-by-region rundown of the warnings.
-- Kyle Hopkins / adn.com
Powerful storm headed toward coastal Alaska
By MARY PEMBERTON / Associated Press
An unusual Bering Sea storm packing hurricane-force winds and 35-foot waves — a type of storm not seen for decades in Alaska — moved rapidly Tuesday toward the western Alaska coastline.
The storm was traveling at 60 mph and had reached the western Aleutian Islands, said Andy Brown, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage. It could reach the beachfront city of Nome by late Tuesday, with winds hitting 85 mph.
The storm was expected to produce a 10-foot surge, forcing dozens of coastal communities to make emergency preparations. Brown advised Bering Sea mariners and people living in coastal communities from Wales to Unalakleet to "prepare for a really nasty storm."
"It is very dangerous," Brown said. "Everybody is spreading the word to let them know this is a major storm."
The storm, described by Brown as "big, deep, low," was taking an unusual path through the northern and eastern Bering Sea.
The windows were boarded up Tuesday morning at the Polar Café, a popular restaurant that faces the ocean in Nome. Items stored in the basement had been carried upstairs and were in one of the hotel rooms, said waitress Andrea Surina. Plans were being made to move the propane tanks to a safer spot, she said.
"It is blowing sideways snow. The water hasn't really come up much yet but it is starting to," Surina said.
The approaching storm, however, wasn't keeping the regulars away. They were sitting at their usual table, talking about the storm, she said.
"It is heading right for us," Surina said. "Nobody misses a good storm."
The last time forecasters saw something similar was in November 1974, when Nome also took the brunt of the storm. That surge measured more than 13 feet, pushing beach driftwood above the level of the previous storm of its type in 1913.
Winds from the current storm were expected to push large amounts of water into Norton Sound, raising sea levels 10 feet above normal through Wednesday.
That will cause beach erosion and flooding and may push Norton Bay ice on shore, forecasters said.
Seas were expected to begin rising along the coastline Tuesday afternoon and gain height rapidly at night before cresting in Nome on Wednesday.
"It will wash pretty far up the beach," said Ted Fathauer, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
Some low-lying areas and a road that runs along the Nome beachfront could experience flooding, he said.
First responders and emergency managers in the communities likely to be affected by the storm were in contact with the State Emergency Coordination Center in Anchorage, which was working with federal and state agencies on storm response plans, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
"They are aware of the situation and are taking steps in each of those communities to respond," he said.
Smaller communities that are vulnerable to storm erosion were of particular concern, especially the village of Kivalina, already one of the state's most threatened communities because of erosion.
Zidek said Kivalina has emergency operations plans in place.
Brown said the state emergency coordination center and the National Weather Service were in contact with emergency personnel in numerous communities. Another conference call was planned for Tuesday afternoon.
"Everybody is aware that the storm is coming," he said.