One of the most powerful storms to hit western Alaska in nearly 40 years battered coastal communities Wednesday with snow and hurricane-force winds, forcing some residents to seek higher ground as it knocked out power and ripped up roofs.
As the storm churned the Bering Sea, residents and emergency responders braced for a possible surge of sea water into coastal communities.
"People out there are used to extreme weather, but this is not a normal storm," said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state's emergency management agency. "This is of a magnitude that can be a storm of record, extremely dangerous, and the state is treating it as such."
Water already has reached homes in at least four Native villages, including Tununak and Kipnuk, state emergency managers said.
Zidek noted there have been no reports of injuries, and damage so far has been largely limited to blown-out windows and battered roofs. Hooper Bay and Tununak reported scattered power outages.
The highest wind gusts recorded at 145 kilometres per hour were at Wales at the western tip of the Seward Peninsula, said Bob Fischer, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
In Nome — the biggest of the coastal communities with about 3,600 residents — wind gusted up to 100 kmh, Fischer said.
The storm knocked out power in the town for several hours before sunrise. Winds were expected to remain strong throughout Wednesday.
"Water was at the bases at a number of buildings but not in the homes yet," Fischer said. Tides could reach two metres above normal, he said.
The height of snow and hurricane-force winds hit Nome at about 2 a.m., police spokesman Zane Brown said. Some roof damage to homes was reported, he said.
Residents along Front Street, which runs less than 30 metres from the seawall that protects the historic gold mining town from the Bering Sea, were asked to voluntarily evacuate the town Tuesday night. They stayed with friends on higher ground or at one of two shelters opened by the city at a recreation centre and at the Nazarene church, he said.
Officials feared the lack of shore-fast sea ice would leave Nome and Native villages sprinkled along the coast vulnerable to sea surges.
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.
The last time forecasters saw something similar was in November 1974, when Nome took the brunt of another storm. The sea surge it created measured more than four metres, pushing beach driftwood above the level of the previous storm of its type in 1913.
The state is closely monitoring the storm and was ready to send help wherever needed and when it was possible, said Zidek, with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The state and emergency managers in the villages have long prepared for the powerful storms that batter Alaska's western coast, holding twice-yearly meetings on dealing with emergencies. In the past few years, the state has held evacuation workshops as well, Zidek said.
A spokeswoman for the Coast Guard said early Wednesday it had received no calls from vessels seeking help from the storm.
B.C. could feel impact
"The Bering Sea storm will break up into several pieces late in the week," says CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe. "One of the larger pieces of that storm will turn southeastward toward British Columbia Saturday."
Wagstaffe said that if the storm tracks as currently predicted, it could bring drenching rain, heavy mountain snow, strong winds and pounding waves from Oregon to British Columbia on the weekend.