Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Saturday night that this weekend’s historic storm has impacted almost 1,000 miles of Alaska’s coastline, and it continues to batter the state.
He said that state officials have not yet gotten reports of any storm-related injuries or deaths.
“We’re trying to assess exactly what has occurred,” Dunleavy said at an 8 p.m. news conference. “We’ve got a lot of rain. We’ve got wind. And we’ve got surge — storm surge — is going to be the big concern.”
The powerful storm, remnants of Typhoon Merbok, slammed into Western Alaska Friday night, hitting the Lower Kuskokwim area and moving north along the Norton Sound region. It led to widespread flooding and damage, with seas as high as 50 feet and hurricane-force wind gusts up to 90 mph. Communities around Nome and further north are expected to feel their biggest impacts overnight into Sunday, said Dunleavy.
“So folks in Kivalina, places like Deering, even Point Hope, just need to be on alert and make sure they’ve got their personal belongings stored as well as possible and are seeking, if possible, higher land,” said Dunleavy.
In Shaktoolik, about 125 miles east of Nome, residents said Saturday they were bracing for another storm surge that night, worried after the first completely destroyed the berm that protects them from the sea.
“The state has been in contact with us and they say the worst is yet to come,” Mayor Lars Sookiayak said in an interview Saturday. “So we don’t know what to expect.”
Sookiayak told the community’s roughly 220 residents to evacuate to the school or a local health clinic early Saturday. The Red Cross reports at least 450 Alaskans are currently sheltering at local schools across multiple communities. Dunleavy said none have been evacuated out of their communities yet.
Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration Saturday morning in response to the storm, and said the state needs to move quickly to assess and respond to the damage, with freeze-up likely just a few weeks away in the more northern areas. He said the state is in contact with the federal government.
“We just have to impress upon our federal friends that it’s not a Florida situation where we’ve got months to work on this,” he said at the news conference. “We’ve got several weeks to work on this.”
Dunleavy said the state knows there has been significant flooding, plus damage to roads, homes and fuel storage in numerous communities. He said there’s also possible damage to airports, ports, seawalls and water and sewage systems. Among the challenges is that the destruction covers hundreds of miles and dozens of communities, each likely with a unique set of damages and recovery needs.
“It would be something akin to parts of Florida being impacted, Georgia, South Carolina and maybe even further points further north,” he said.
Another reason the assessments need to be done quickly, Dunleavy said, is because the state is tracking another typhoon that’s approaching Japan. If the typhoon’s remnants again move toward Alaska, the storm could land in about seven to 10 days, he said.
“We’re going to keep an eye on that as well,” he said. “But we’re going to move very quickly to do everything we can to get our communities assessed.”
Bryan Fisher, director of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said, so far, the state knows that the Aleutian and Pribilof islands did not see major damage, and commercial fishing fleets had enough warning to get to safety. He said the significant storm impacts started as far up the Kuskokwim River as Bethel, 66 miles inland, and then moved up the western coast, and to the Norton Sound.
“This storm is going to be with us for a while. The impacts are going to be felt above Nome, up to Kotzebue and Kotzebue Sound, and communities north,” he said. “So we’re continuing to communicate all day with the communities out there.”
It’s likely the military will be involved in the state’s response to the storm, said Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, commissioner with the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He said on Saturday the focus was asking Western Alaska communities about immediate needs.
“Because we are quite literally in the midst of a storm, we are asking the question, ‘What do you need? What do you anticipate you’re going to need?’” he said. “Now all the phone calls today we asked the question, ‘Do you have any injuries?’ ‘None.’ ‘Do you need medical help?’ ‘None.’ But that could change.”
The state is also going to continue to assess whether communities have the food and drinking water that they need.
“We’re assessing everything,” said Dunleavy. “So we’re prepared to deal with this and make these communities whole.”
He also underscored that the National Weather Service’s ability to predict earlier in the week that the typhoon’s remnants would hit Alaska was hugely helpful.
“I think people did prepare, but you can’t prevent a tropical storm or the remnants of a typhoon — you can’t prevent that from happening,” he said.
Dunleavy said he expects the state to have a better idea by Sunday about the storm’s impacts.