A historically powerful storm slammed into Western Alaska Friday night and into Saturday, bringing major flooding and high winds to a huge swath of coastal communities.
By Saturday evening, the state said it had received no reports of injuries or deaths related to the storm.
But damage had torn across hundreds of miles of Alaska’s coastline impacting communities all along the way. Alaskans described water flooding homes and roads. Wind tore off roofs. Houses floated off their foundations. Boats sank.
The water has begun receding in many areas, but further north, the peak of the storm surge is forecast to hit later Saturday night. As levels drop, more damage will be revealed.
National Weather Service climatologist Brian Brettschneider described the storm on Saturday as the “worst-case scenario.”
The storm is the remnants of what was Typhoon Merbok. Forecasters had predicted earlier this week that it could be one of the worst storms to hit Alaska’s western coast in recent history.
And it was.
“In some places, this is clearly the worst storm in living memory,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks climatologist Rick Thoman.
Hundreds of people across multiple communities are sheltering in schools, which are serving as emergency evacuation centers. In some communities, local leaders’ early actions helped residents do what they needed to move valuable vehicles and boats to higher ground. In other communities, the storm overwhelmed efforts.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it this bad,” said Alvina Imgalrea in Chevak.
In Napakiak, Job Hale said, “It’s just a lake everywhere.”
“We are pretty heartbroken,” said Shaktoolik Mayor Lars Sookiayak.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration Saturday morning for affected communities.
Below is our live blog, reported in collaboration with KYUK and KTOO, of accounts on Saturday from Alaskans impacted by the storm, as they took stock of the damage and as some braced for the weather to worsen.
7 p.m.: Hooper Bay, the hardest hit school in the Lower Yukon
In the Lower Yukon School District, all eyes are on Hooper Bay, a community that hugs the Bering Sea Coast.
Gene Stone, the superintendent, said the district has been providing food, shelter and basic necessities at the school.
He said about 110 people spent the night at the Hooper Bay school on Friday. About 300 hundred were expected on Saturday. The district was also sheltering about 70 people from Kotlik, a community northeast of Hooper Bay.
Stone works out of the district’s headquarters in the Yukon River community of Mountain Village, which was pounded with 40 mile an hour winds on Friday night. It knocked storage sheds down, stripped siding off of buildings and peeled back the roof of the old Covenant church. But the damage wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in Hooper Bay.
“I could only imagine what Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay were going through, because their winds were 25-35 miles an hour greater than what ours were,” said Stone, who is relieved that there have been no fatalities or injuries. He credits community leaders for pulling people together.
“We have people that are safe and warm,” he said.
The school has its own power generator, which kept running when a power outage hit the rest of Hooper Bay. He said the district is using supplies from its school lunch program and has plenty of food to feed people for now.
Stone has taught in Hooper Bay and has experienced flooding from fall storms before, but says the combination of high winds and high water has been the worst in recent memory.
He said it comes on top of a year of “Biblical proportions” for the region.
“We had a fire, a 180,000 acre fire. We’ve had a crash in the fishery. I don’t want to call it famine, but people aren’t getting the fish that they’re used to eating,” Stone said. “And then we have COVID, so we have that plague, and then we have floods. We’ve kind of had everything.”
Stone said there will be no classes taught at the Hooper Bay school on Monday to give its staff time to figure out what to do next. The principal is currently out on medical leave, leaving a new assistant principal in charge. Stone says she and other staffers are doing a good job of meeting the needs and making the health and safety of the entire village their top priority.
– Rhonda McBride/KTOO
6 p.m.: Nome urges residents to stay off flooded roads
City of Nome staff said on Facebook Saturday that several streets had flooded due to storm surges, and they urged residents to avoid those areas and limit non-essential travel for their own safety.
Nome Mayor John Handeland told the Anchorage Daily News that an unoccupied home which had been swept into the Snake River and collided into a bridge over the river — seen in a photo posted online by state transportation officials — was likely to fall apart without damaging the bridge.
National Weather Service forecaster Alan Shriver said Saturday evening that he’d also received report of flooding on Nome’s airport runway. He said that as the remnants of Typhoon Merbok dissipate, water levels in Nome were expected to fall.
“This is going to be pretty much just continuing to slowly lift north and kind of fill in and weaken over the next 24 hours or so,” Shriver said. “And at some point, we should be finally seeing all of the issues that they’ve been seeing there — because of the strong winds blowing into Norton Sound — that really should all be just gradually decreasing.”
– Chris Klint/Alaska Public Media
5:30 p.m.: In Toksook Bay, a sense of relief
In Toksook Bay Friday night, lifelong resident Noah Lincoln took his four-wheeler out toward the cliffs to watch the waves roll in. Intense wind gusts whipped across the town. Lincoln spread his jacket wide and leaned forward, wondering if the wind was strong enough to lift him into the air. It was.
“It threw me onto my back, the gust knocked the wind out of me,” Lincoln said. “I kind of regretted it.”
But that may have been the most serious injury reported from Toksook Bay, according to Lincoln. The city mayor also says there were no serious injuries reported.
The houses in Toksook Bay are built on higher ground, and none of them were flooded. However, high water pushed some boats in the harbor up the hillside, and one home near the shore had to be evacuated. The city mayor said wind caused minor damage to one of the businesses in town and some smaller structures, including sheds and porches. The town did not lose power.
There were no mass evacuations, injuries, or severe property damage, according to the mayor. The main concern is erosion. In Toksook Bay, houses are built on cliffs overlooking the sea. Lincoln estimated those cliffs may have eroded by a foot or more last night.
Lincoln said that it was the worst storm he has ever experienced. Hurricane force winds in the fall are unheard of, he said. According to the National Weather Service, the storm is the strongest to hit Western Alaska in the month of September since at least 2005, when records of storms like this began.
“I think there’s a sense of relief right now,” Lincoln said.
– Will McCarthy & Nina Kravinsky/KYUK
5:15 p.m.: Storm destroys Shaktoolik’s berm, its main protection from the sea
Shaktoolik has lost its berm to the storm, according to the community’s mayor, Lars Sookiayak. The berm was all that protected the small village from the sea
“It’s a major loss,” Sookiayak said. “We’re pretty heartbroken.”
Resident Gloria Andrew also underscored the importance of the berm, made of gravel, sand and driftwood. She estimated the berm was destroyed between about 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
“It really saved us from the first hit that came in this morning,” she said.
She and Sookiayak said they’re worried about tonight. The winds are expected to shift and the seas to pound the coastline again.
“The state has been in contact with us and they say the worst is yet to come,” said Sookiayak. “So we don’t know what to expect, and we’re just going to have to go on their word.”
Now that the berm is gone, Andrew said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the second hit.”
Shaktoolik is a village of roughly 220 people and it sits on a gravel-sand spit between the Tagoomenik River and Norton Sound. Sookiayak called on the community to evacuate to the local school early Saturday morning. People set up cots and air mattresses in the building, said Andrew. She spoke from her home, where she was checking on her family’s dogs and cat.
By late Saturday afternoon, Sookiayak said he had not heard of any storm-related injuries, and said everyone was accounted for. He said aside from the berm, he was also concerned about the storm-fueled erosion that occurred a few miles from town, tearing into the coastline.
“We’re almost becoming an island,” he said.
He asked people to keep Shaktoolik in their prayers.
Andrew said, “We need all the good thoughts and prayers for the villages.”
– Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media
5 p.m., Alaska Red Cross is preparing to send teams to Western Alaska
The Alaska Red Cross is preparing to mobilize disaster assistance teams to communities hit hard by the Bering Sea storm.
Taylar Sausen, regional director of communications for the Alaska Red Cross, said logistics are the primary focus right now.
Aside from Alaska responders, Sausen said teams include people from about 15 different states.
Currently 25 out-of-state responders have arrived and more are on the way.
“It just really shows that the outside community in the Lower 48 is here for us,” Sausen said. “They are expressing their caring and support.”
The Alaska Red Cross has been coordinating with city and tribal governments as well as Native corporations, who are in touch with their shareholders.
“It seems like the communities that we’ve heard from so far have been able to handle the immediate impacts of the storm on their own,” said Sausen, who expects this to change quickly as more information becomes available.
“The primary need right now is for disaster assessment, so the Red Cross can step in and help communities with their recovery efforts,” Sausen said. “I suspect that we’ll know more, when they are not in the batten-down-the hatches mode, like they are right now.”
“If we hear from these communities and If the community needs us, we will be there,” Sausen said.
The Red Cross Anchorage office has sheltering kits it is preparing to send to communities.
Sausen hopes disaster response teams can start heading to communities on Monday but said, depending on flood damage and the weather, it could take more time for help to arrive.
– Rhonda McBride/KTOO
4:34 p.m.: In Scammon Bay, past floods helped inform preparations
In Scammon Bay, city administrator Larson Hunter said conditions are finally beginning to calm down.
“You can finally see the ground,” Hunter said.
Although there was still significant flooding along their stretch of river, the village itself avoided the worst effects of the storm. Most of the town is built up to a hillside, which prevented any homes from flooding. There’s also a mountain to the south of Scammon Bay, which spared them from the southerly winds that were so damaging to nearby Hooper Bay.
Beyond their good fortune, the town was also prepared for high water due to another extreme flooding event in November 2013. That year, many boats were lost out to the ocean or ended up stranded on the village’s airport. This year, Scammon Bay city administrators preemptively informed residents of the flood risk and advised them to stage their boats further from the water. Although some boats still floated free from their anchor point, there were far fewer than in 2013.
“I would say this storm may have been worse but we were prepared,” Hunter said.
Hunter said he was concerned about how much erosion the flooding may have caused, but they wouldn’t know the impacts for a few days. For now, everyone’s focus is on making sure their boats are safe and secure.
– Will McCarthy/KYUK
4:04 p.m.: ‘Historical and scary and worrisome’: Bering Strait School District superintendent braces for storm surge
Schools across Norton Sound in the storm’s path have opened as shelters for the public, with their superintendent saying more water is yet to come overnight.
Susan Nedza, head of the Bering Strait School District and a member of Unalakleet’s Emergency Response Team, said Saturday afternoon that she saw wind and waves overnight Friday, with some power outages reported.
“And then we had our meeting this afternoon to just brace for tonight because the water has flooded in so much that it’s at a high, high level, and then we expect high tide at about 4 a.m. tonight,” Nezda said. “So 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. is going to be pretty dicey here.”
Nedza said her primary concern is for other communities in the far-flung district. Those included Golovin due to its extensive flooding and Shaktoolik, where she said a protective berm has largely been washed away by the storm.
“So again, they’re going to be harder hit tonight, and so we’re hoping they can maintain safety,” Nedza said. “And so we’re looking at getting through tonight, tomorrow, and then looking at what we can do to get in there and fix schools and teacher housing and help our communities and recover as best we can. But it’s definitely historical and scary and worrisome.”
The district’s schools that opened as shelters during the storm include Gambell, Golovin, Savoonga, Shaktoolik and Unalakleet, with the Elim school expected to become available as a shelter later in the day.
The next concern facing communities across the region is what the surge will leave behind.
“The amount of debris and driftwood and damage, it’s going to be a lot of cleanup,” Nedza said. “Just the silt and debris that’s been washed in is gonna be a lot of cleanup, in all of our communities – and we’re going to need assistance.”
Nedza said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski had already reached out Saturday to superintendents in districts affected by the storm to offer that assistance.
– Chris Klint/Alaska Public Media
3:53 p.m. Hundreds of residents take shelter at school in Hooper Bay, where the coastal flood warning extends into Sunday
More than 100 additional people have taken shelter at the Hooper Bay School, bringing the total number of people seeking refuge there to more than 250, nearly a fifth of the town.
Hooper Bay, pop. 1,375, is the largest community on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta coast and one of the hardest hit by the storm’s coastal flooding.
Vice Principal Brittany Taraba said the school handed out more than 750 lunches today. Many people came to the school to pick a mid-day meal, since their houses are safe to sleep in but their power is out, so they’re not able to make food at home.
The school has opened most of its classrooms for sleeping areas tonight. Taraba said once those have filled up, she’ll open the gym for more space.
Taraba said morale has been relatively high, and the community has come together in the face of the storm, which has moved at least three houses off their foundations in Hooper Bay and flooded large parts of the village.
“It’s really amazing to watch this community,” Taraba said.
She said residents have donated recently caught and processed moose to feed evacuees at the school.
When Taraba spoke to KYUK, kids sheltering at the school were watching a movie and playing games in the gym.
Taraba said the shelter will need more bottled water for evacuees in the coming days.
A coastal flood warning remains in effect in Hooper Bay until Sunday at 10 a.m.
3:33 p.m.: Crowley Fuels reports no known damage so far to fuel infrastructure
Crowley Fuels, one of the major fuel providers in the region affected by the Bering Sea storm, said it has not had any known structural damage to its infrastructure or equipment, like fuel tank farms.
Torey Vogel, a spokesperson for Crowley, said the company has initiated its emergency action plan to safeguard against adverse impacts to the affected communities and the environment.
Vogel said Crowley serves more than 280 communities across the state. It provides fuel for homes, vehicles, planes, and equipment.
Crowley serves Hooper Bay, a Bering Sea Community that has an overturned fuel tank.
Vogel said the tank does not belong to Crowley but to the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative.
Bill Stamm, CEO of AVEC, said he’s received reports of a sheen on the water in Hooper Bay, where the AVEC tank farm has flooded. He said there may be an oil spill. Stamm said AVEC crews are waiting for the storm to subside to assess the damage.
– Rhonda McBride/KTOO
3 p.m.: Napakiak is completely submerged, and extent of riverbank erosion remains unknown
The entire town of Napakiak is under about 4 to 5 feet of water, according to City Council member Walter Nelson and local contractor Job Hale. The water is receding, but very slowly.
“It’s just a lake everywhere,” Hale said.
Napakiak is 54 river miles inland on the lower Kuskokwim River and tidally influenced.
Both Nelson and Hale said advanced warning and community outreach helped residents prepare for the storm. Over the past few days, the tribe and the city went house-to-house, passing out pamphlets on what to expect from the storm.
One recommendation advised moving vehicles like snow machines and ATV’s to the town’s roads. The roads are built higher than the rest of the village and are less prone to flooding.
The roads are now lined with ATV’s, trucks, and cars. These roads are still mostly dry, and Hale said even rabbits and birds have started to take shelter on them.
Most houses have also remained dry. Although there’s water beneath nearly every home in the village, only a few houses have flooded, according to Hale.
But beyond that immediate good news, there are serious concerns about the erosion this level of flooding might cause.
According to Hale, high water eroded at least 3 feet of shoreline on Friday even before the worst of the flooding began. Now, because the town is underwater, it’s impossible to tell how much more of the riverbank has disappeared.
“I’ve never seen the flooding to be this high,” Nelson, a lifelong Napakiak resident, said.
Napakiak has been moving buildings away from the eroding river bank for decades. In recent years, that erosion has accelerated, as a warming climate has melted the permafrost, raised water levels, and amplified storms.
The village is undergoing a managed retreat from the river because of erosion. It’s working to move the entire community a safe distance from the shoreline over the next 50 years. The school sits only yards away from the Kuskokwim, and construction began this summer to demolish the back half of the building before it fell into the river. It’s unclear how much worse this storm might make the situation.
For now, Nelson said he was glad that people have been able to save their vehicles and stay safe.
“People got together here and helped each other and helped out the community,” Nelson said.
– Will McCarthy/KYUK
2:45 p.m.: Western Alaska air service sees severe disruptions amid storm
Several regional air carriers serving Western Alaska have suspended flights Saturday in response to the massive storm.
Juliana Peterson, a customer-service manager with Grant Aviation, said just 10 flights were completed by the airline on Friday. All morning and afternoon flights Saturday were canceled, with evening flights on a weather hold pending updates from the National Weather Service.
Fox Air’s director of operations, Dave Bartlett, said its flights have been on a systemwide weather hold for the past 18 hours.
“We’re all on the ground waiting for this high wind to die down,” he said.
Although NWS forecasts called for winds in Bethel to start subsiding by about 5 p.m. Saturday, Bartlett said winds remained high at most destinations Fox serves.
A message on Yute Commuter Service’s phone line said all Saturday flights were canceled, with Bethel Air announcing cancellations on Twitter.
2:30 p.m., Alaska Village Electric Cooperative says reaching Hooper Bay is top priority due to damage at tank farm
Bill Stamm, who is head of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, said damage is widespread and concentrated along the West Coast of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, starting at Toksook Bay all the way up the coast, as far North as Koyuk. Interior Alaska communities like Holy Cross have been affected as well.
Stamm said he’s surprised that damage has not been as bad at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, where it’s been windy but with no apparent outages.
Stamm said AVEC, which serves 58 communities, is currently assessing damage.
Nine communities that AVEC serves have been affected including Hooper Bay, Chevak, Emmonak, Mountain Village, Toksook Bay, Holy Cross, Nunapitchuk, Bethel, and Koyuk.
There are a number of partial outages reported in a number of communities, but so far no reports of injuries or missing people.
Stamm said storm surges are causing most of the problems. Here’s what he knows about what communities are facing:
• Hooper Bay: Hooper Bay is of most concern right now with flooding in a tank farm. There is concern about near empty tanks floating away. One tank is leaning over. Sheen has been spotted in one area, but so far this doesn’t appear to be a major spill.
AVEC staged crews in Bethel and Nome prior to the storm, but the severe weather will probably keep them from flying out until Sunday. Reaching Hooper Bay is the top priority for now due to the damage at the tank farm.
• Shaktoolik: The seawall in Shaktoolik has been breached. There is flooding in town.
• Kotlik and Chevak: There is flooding in Kotlik and Chevak near the AVEC power plants, with water all around them, but these plants are up on pilings and don’t appear to be damaged.
• Holy Cross and Nunpitchuk: There are reports of a tree on a downed power line in Holy Cross and a leaning power pole in Nunapitchuk.
Stamm urged patience. Due to the widespread damage, he said it will take awhile for crews to get to the affected communities.
He also asked people not to try to deal with downed lines themselves, because they could be dangerous. He said if you come across a downed lined, contact AVEC.
– Rhonda McBride Faubion/KTOO
1:27 p.m.: Storm leads to serious river erosion in Newtok. About 60 people shelter in school.
In Newtok, Lucinta Ivon is one of the 60 or 70 people sheltering at the school. She said a portion of the town is flooded, and the number of families at the school has grown throughout the morning. Ivon said she came because she was concerned that her house wouldn’t stand up to the wind.
“I’m glad we came here,” Ivon said.
Families brought their own sleeping bags and food and are setting up in classrooms and the gym. Ivon said the river seems to be going down — at least for now. According to Ivon, the school is now about 40 feet from the water.
According to Joseph John, who works at the town store, about nine or 10 houses have flooded. None have floated off their foundation so far. He said empty fuel tanks and boats floated to the other side of the river, and that a handful of boats sank. The riverbank eroded between 10 and 20 feet overnight.
In Newtok, erosion is a longstanding concern. For decades, the community has been laying plans and securing funds to relocate the entire village to more stable ground. About a third of the community has relocated to Mertarvik, a new village site nine river miles upstream from Newtok. The rest of the community is expected to move there in the coming years as more homes are built.
Still in Newtok, John’s main concern now is how much water is going to come back in with the next high tide.
“This is the worst we’ve had in years,” John said.
– Will McCarthy/KYUK
1:23 p.m.: ‘I’ve never seen the water this high before’: Chevak loses much of its local fishing fleet
Chevak City Administrator Dennis James was at the village school Saturday afternoon, where more than 15 families had sought emergency shelter overnight. No injuries were reported locally, but a third of the village had lost power amid extensive damage.
“We’re situated on a bluff, and that’s probably the only saving grace for our community,” James said. “I’ve seen it flooded over to where it looked like we’re on an island — but I’ve never seen the water this high before.”
The storm’s greatest toll in Chevak, James said, was the destruction it wrought on the local fishing fleet’s skiffs and outboard motors. It also leveled many of their storage sheds.
“There’s still lots of boats way out in the tundra on the east side of the community,” James said. “There are multiple boats and motors that sunk and these are our livelihood – equipment for the livelihood of the people. So yeah, it’s pretty devastating to witness something like this.”
Alvina Imgalrea recorded a video Friday night of a shed and boats drifting away amid rising waters. She said Saturday that most of Chevak’s 1,000 residents owned boats before the storm struck, but now most of the boats have disappeared.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it this bad,” Imgalrea said. “Yesterday there was a lot of people at the river dock, helping pull up boats, in hopes to save their boats and motor. But today’s there’s only a few boats – like I counted seven when I went down earlier that were secure.”
As wind gusts reached 70 miles per hour in Chevak, Imgalrea’s husband stayed at their apartment while she took their children to the school for shelter.
She said residents were working together to help each other amid extensive damage to local homes and the collapse of the local radio tower.
“The school is providing breakfast, lunch this morning to the community because a lot of people don’t have electricity to cook,” she said. “So there’s community members coming up to the school to eat, and they have ladies that were staying here at the school volunteering to cut up some moose meat so that the cooks can cook them and serve them out to the community.”
-Chris Klint/Alaska Public Media
1:15 p.m.: State says it has yet not received reports of any deaths or injuries
By Saturday afternoon, the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management had not yet received any reports of deaths or injuries related to the massive storm, according to spokesman Jeremy Zidek.
“We also don’t have any request for emergency assistance from any communities, but we do know that there has been widespread flooding in communities all the way from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta up into the Norton Sound area where the storm is most severe,” he said.
He said it’s expected that the Norton Sound area will see greater storm impacts this afternoon and into the evening. He said the storm is ongoing and the Emergency Management Division and its partners, including the Alaska State Troopers and Department of Transportation, are on standby to respond to the damage.
“We have to determine actually what is needed, and then we have to have a window in the weather to get out there and provide it,” he said. “We’re still very much within the event.”
He said the state had worked with communities in the lead-up to Friday before the storm hit to implement their local emergency plans. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s disaster declaration will also aid in the response effort, he said.
-Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media
12:56 p.m.: The National Weather Service says as storm moves north Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities are dealing with flooding
The National Weather Service said the center of the storm is now above Diomede Islands north of Nome and is continuing its trajectory up the Western coast of Alaska.
“The storm is still fairly strong,” said National Weather Service Hydrologist Johnse Ostman.
The storm has passed the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta coast and communities there continue to deal with flooding.
Ostman said Kuskokwim Delta villages are seeing flooding in low-lying areas, including in Napakiak, Oscarville and Napaskiak. In Bethel, Brown’s Slough has flooded parts of the east side of the city.
Ostman said the National Weather Service also believes there’s been flooding in communities in the Lower Yukon Delta, and is working on confirming specifics.
He said most communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta should see water begin to recede, since high tide was around 11 a.m. Saturday. Coastal communities can still expect to see high surf.
Ostman said to watch out for high water. Even as the tide goes out, some water will continue “ponding,” or remaining in areas where it’s not able to recede.
He said that erosion as water recedes could create sinkholes, so it’s important to be careful traveling across flooded areas.
“You never know what kind of erosion is occurring under the water,” Ostman said.
The storm is remnants of Typhoon Merbok. Ostman said this storm has been historic in Alaska because of how far north Typhoon Merbok developed.
“These tropical cyclones typically are further south,” Ostman said. “This one developed much higher and was able to track further north.”
12:08 p.m.: Kwigillingok may have avoided the worst of the storm
From her house near Kwigillingok’s school, Janet Andrew can see that debris from the flood came right up to the ice chests in front of her house. She said power in the town was out briefly around 3 a.m. but has since returned. She said there’s currently no cell phone service in the village. The main village store is also closed because its registers can’t function without phone service.
Still, Andrew believes Kwigillingok appears to have avoided the worst of the storm.
“Me and John [her husband] were so worried because we’re right by the ocean,” Andrew said. “Even in calm weather a very high tide will go into my smoke house.”
Andrew said there were extremely high winds last night. At least some people evacuated to the school, including her daughter whose house was shaking violently in the storm.
But Andrew doesn’t know of any homes that were lost. People have started to check on their boats and assess the damage.
“Everything looks good,” Andrew said.
– Will McCarthy/KYUK
11:45 a.m.: Massive storm is ‘worst-case scenario,’ says climatologist
National Weather Service climatologist Brian Brettschneider likened the massive storm to the “worst-case scenario” that forecasters had considered possible.
“And all those ingredients really did come together this time to create just the unique set of circumstances to maximize the amount of damage,” Brettschneider said. “So not only the strength of the storm, but the trajectory and what we call the fetch, how long the winds are blowing at just the right direction to push water right into vulnerable coastal locations. It’s always a possibility that all the ingredients could come together and we always hope that they don’t, but in this case they certainly did.”
With floodwaters still rising Saturday in Nome beyond several previous storm records, Brettschneider said the scale of the affected region is massive.
“The potential for damage is going to be tremendous,” he said. “And there’s really a whole series of communities along the coast like Hooper Bay, Golovin, Kipnuk, Toksook Bay, they’ve all reported significant damage, and even Kotlik – we can’t see the webcams out of there.”
The storm also slowed as it approached Alaska, intensifying the surges of water it drove ashore and delivering them for a longer period overnight.
“In many cases, water tends to come down slower than it built up,” Brettschneider said. “So hopefully that’s not the case this time, but high water will be our problem for much of the day.”
Forecasters were able to provide detailed warnings of the storm’s impact in the days leading up to Friday, Brettschneider said, due to remarkably accurate computer modeling of Typhoon Merbok’s collapse during the past week.
“It’s really kind of an impressive display of computational power that it was able to get the strength, the intensity, the direction and the potential impacts several days in advance,” he said. “So they won’t all be as successful but in this case, you know, the storm is exactly where we thought it was going to be several days ago.”
University of Alaska Fairbanks climatologist Rick Thoman said Saturday morning that reported damage from the storm was both widespread and intense.
“In some places, this is clearly the worst storm in living memory,” Thoman said, citing Elders in Hooper Bay. “Nome has just – the water level there has just gone to 10.3 feet, which now makes us the highest water level in Nome since the Great 1974 Storm; obviously, just tremendous damage in Golovin. So I think, from the impact side, it’s not just one or two communities got slammed, it’s a large, large area over a large distance has been very strongly impacted.”
With water levels still rising Saturday in the northern Bering Sea, Thoman warned that “we’re not done” with the storm, with further flooding expected in Shishmaref and Kotzebue along the Chukchi Sea, and in Nome as water moves east into Norton Sound.
“So the worst has either happened or will be happening, say in the next six to 12 hours, depending where you’re at,” Thoman said. “Certainly south of the Yukon River Delta, things are definitively backing down.”
One of the more striking aspects of the storm from a climate perspective, Thoman said, was its arrival so early during Alaska’s winter storm season.
“It’s not that storms this strong don’t happen, but they occur later when there’s larger temperature differences across the region,” he said. And that’s a function in part of this being ex-Typhoon Merbok.”
– Chris Klint/Alaska Public Media
11:38 a.m.: Hooper Bay residents take shelter
As of Saturday morning, 110 people were sheltering at the Hooper Bay School, according to a Vice Principal Brittany Taraba. She said more have been coming in throughout the day on Saturday.
Tribal Chief Edgar Tall said at least three houses have moved off their foundations. He estimated two can be salvaged but one broke in half and will need major repairs.
He said he’s never seen a storm like this.
“Not in my whole life,” Tall said. “Some people that are older than me, since they were children.”
Tall said the high tide is still up to the road, and many homes are still without electricity. No injuries, fatalities or missing persons have been reported.
The school has basic supplies, but Taraba said they are hoping to get cots and more water bottles. Last night people slept on sleeping bags and mats on the floor.
A video recorded Friday in Hooper Bayshowed water flooding homes and wind tearing off roofs:
– Nina Kravinsky/KYUK
10:15 a.m.: Water has stopped rising in Golovin, but many residents were forced from their homes overnight
In Golovin, Josephine Daniels said she and many other residents were forced from their homes as waters rose Friday evening.
“The storm started to get halfway up the beach around 6 p.m. last night,” Daniels said. “So we moved to the school. Then when we woke up, the water was covering some of the steps at the school – the school is in the center of the village downtown.”
Late Saturday morning, Daniels said waters had stopped rising. The school and everyone inside appeared to be safe, but the building was “still surrounded by water.”
– Chris Klint/Alaska Public Media
Original story, Saturday morning:
A powerful storm is slamming Western Alaska, with reports of major flooding, high winds and widespread damage in numerous coastal communities.
The storm is the remnants of what was Typhoon Merbok, and forecasters had predicted it could be one of the worst storms to hit Alaska’s western coast in recent history.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a disaster for the communities impacted by the storm Saturday morning, and in a 9:40 a.m. Twitter post said that the state had not yet received reports of injuries.
The extent of the storm’s damage wasn’t immediately clear Saturday, but social media posts from several communities documented high winds, high waters and power outages overnight and into the morning. Nearly all of Alaska’s western coast remains under a flood warning through Sunday morning, with the weather service warning of water inundating low-lying property and shoreline erosion.
In Golovin, the National Weather Service reported around 7:30 a.m. that everyone is safe, but major flooding continues.
“The highest water levels are not expected until early this afternoon, so flooding will likely get worse,” the weather service said in a Facebook post. “Water is entirely surrounding the school, homes and structures are flooded, at least a couple homes floating off the foundation, some older fuel tanks are tilted over, waves are starting to push into the community driven by 60 mph winds.”
A photo from Nome showed Front Street completely flooded.
In Chevak, one person wrote: “Practically all boats and sheds sunk/floated away.”
The weather service is also reporting high water and flooding in Kotlik Saturday morning, and significant waves in Shaktoolik.
Editor’s note: If you live in a community impacted by the historic storm, we’d like to hear from you. If you’re interested in speaking with a reporter, please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-550-8444. Thank you.