Western Alaska residents urged to brace for what could be one of the worst storms in recent history

an aerial image of a storm
A screenshot of an aerial view of the incoming September storm on track to hit Western Alaska today and tomorrow. (Storm track via Rick Thoman)

Western Alaska residents braced Friday for a powerful storm that forecasters said could be one of the worst in recent history, bringing with it hurricane-force winds and high surf that could knock out power and cause flooding.

The storm is the remnants of what was Typhoon Merbok, which University of Alaska Fairbanks climate specialist Rick Thoman said is also influencing weather patterns far from Alaska — a rare late-summer storm now is expected to bring rain this weekend to drought-stricken parts of California.

“All this warm air that’s been brought north by this ex-typhoon is basically inducing a chain reaction in the jet stream downstream from Alaska,” he said.

“It’s a historic-level storm,” Thoman said of the system steaming toward Alaska. “In 10 years, people will be referring to the September 2022 storm as a benchmark storm.”

Hurricane-force winds were forecast in parts of the Bering Sea, while in the small communities of Elim and Koyuk, around 90 miles from the hub community of Nome, water levels could be up to 18 feet above the normal high tide line, according to the National Weather Service. Flood warnings were in effect until Sunday in some areas.

In Nome, which has about 3,500 residents, Leon Boardway was working as usual Friday at the Nome Visitors Center, a half-block from the Bering Sea.

“I just want to keep my door open and the coffee pot on,” he said after it had begun to rain and the winds picked up.

But few people were coming by. Residents, visitors and businesses in town were boarding up windows and otherwise preparing for the storm.

“The ocean is getting worse out there,” said Boardway, 71, as he checked out the center’s webcam, which from its high perch has a good view of the swells.

“I hope everybody stays calm and everybody just gets in a good, safe position,” he said.

In Kongiganak, on the coast of the Kuskokwim Bay, residents were getting the school ready if people had to evacuate their homes.

Typhoon Merbok formed farther east in the Pacific Ocean than where such storms typically appear. Water temperatures are unusually warm this year so the storm “was able to spin up,” Thoman said.

Meanwhile, the state emergency management department on Friday was urging Western Alaska residents to make last-minute preparations now. The department advised people to secure large equipment or loose materials, stock up on drinking water and check on their neighbors in need.

“We expect that there may be up to 90 mph gusts, the same kind of weather conditions that would complicate flying, would complicate any kind of aerial delivery of materials or response,” said Claude Denver, the response manager for the State Operations Emergency Center. “So that’s something to keep in mind. For most communities, while the storm is going on, folks have to employ your local emergency plans in preparation to kind of get through the first 48 to 72 hours of the event.”

Graphic provided by Rick Thoman with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, ACCAP (09.15.2022)

This applies to communities along the Yukon Delta Coast, the Norton Sound and throughout the Bering Strait. The peak storm surge could rival the Bering Sea superstorm from November of 2011, but without any sea ice to buffer coastal communities this time around, it may lead to severe coastal flooding, according to Ed Plumb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Office in Fairbanks.

“The highest storm surge is going to be in the Northern Bering Sea. We’re looking at storm surge values from 8 to 12 feet over portions of the Southern Seward Peninsula and then down further south, toward the Yukon Delta, 5 to 8 feet,” Plumb said.

Based on historical climate records in Alaska, going back over the last hundred years, this could be the strongest September storm ever recorded in the Northern Bering Sea, according to the weather service.

Denver emphasized that, for now, communities should activate their local emergency response plans. But once the storm settles down, then the state will respond with the appropriate resources.

“We’re really not quite sure what the impact is going to be,” Denver said. “So we really want to make sure that if something happens in a community, if they could reach out to us, the State Emergency Operations Center at (907)428-7100, and let us know what they find; if there’s flooding, if there’s damage, [high] winds, resource needs, if they’ve got people sheltering, if the power is out.”

KNOM’s Davis Hovey and KYUK’s Nina Kravinsky contributed to this story.

Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome.

Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located.

Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.

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