Western Alaskans remember Typhoon Merbok a year later

a cabin in a river
Typhoon Merbok pushed the Noyakuk family’s cabin into Nome’s Snake River on Sept. 17, 2022. Courtesy Amanda Noyakuk)

One year ago this month, much of Western Alaska was under flood and storm warnings as Typhoon Merbok transitioned into the Bering Sea. More than 1,300 miles of coastline was hit, including more than 35 remote communities. One year after the storm, residents look back on the havoc that struck the state.

Typhoon Merbok hit the state of Alaska on Sept. 17, 2022. For many, a year’s worth of food was lost, fishing supplies broken, and subsistence camps that had been passed down through generations destroyed.

Ryan Metzger is the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. He said the storm was historic for many reasons.

“The fact that this happened in September, we didn’t have any sea ice to kind of dampen the waves from the coastal flooding,” Metzger said.

Metzger said remnants of a typhoon enter the Bering Sea every year, even in years where NWS doesn’t expect storminess in the region.

“Maybe 10 days before the storm will we actually see that a storm is actually going inbound,” he said.

When Merbok hit last year, forecasters warned that seas could rise up to 54 feet, and winds could reach up to 86 mph along affected shorelines. The city of Nome experienced peak winds of over 70 mph.

Metzger said the best way to prepare for a typhoon is for communities to install long-term infrastructure solutions, such as seawalls made of large rocks or concrete, but they’re costly and not realistic for all communities.

“It’s not always practical to move every possible thing [inland] but moving things of value, like cars, snow machines, four wheelers, and small boats,” he said.

The communities of Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Golovin, Newtok, and Nome were hardest hit. Sierra Smyth lives in Golovin and remembers when the storm hit just over a year ago. She recalled seeing her neighbors house for the first time after the storm.

“The door got blown open by the waves, and their house was filled with like three feet of sand,” Smyth said. “Small shoes were buried under it. And they were cold. And they were scared.”

Smyth’s family stayed the night at the school in fear the storm would get worse. She said her son is particular about what he eats and she had to find a way to feed him.

“We ended up taking a steel trash can, we found some blocks and paper towels, and some rubbing alcohol and a beaker from the science classroom,” she said. “We took them out on the back steps and we’d light a little fire, heat up his milk, put it in the bottle, smother the fire, then go inside and feed him several times during the day.”

Amanda Noyakuk of Nome lost her grandparents’ cabin that her grandfather rebuilt in the 1970s. The cabin, once located on Belmont Street in Nome, was swept away into the Snake River during the storm. The morning that the storm hit, Noyakuk began receiving masses of photos before she arrived on the scene.

“I was out and about and the people that were at Belmont, people were sharing photos. I was getting screenshots of them,” Noyakuk said. “And that’s how I found out and it wasn’t until it got bright out that we went to go and look at the house. And there was nothing we could do about it because it was floating in the river and pushed up against the Snake River bridge.”

Luckily, there was nobody living in the house at the time. The home was being used to store sentimental belongings.

“There were just so many things scattered everywhere along the river,” Noyakuk said. “ There I saw a lot of my baby clothes, a lot of my old toys, and my sister’s old photographs.”

The city of Nome came together in a time where the community needed it the most. Noyakuk said the community helped gather her belongings from the river, and is thankful for those who helped her and her family.

Barbara Aukon has a camp at Mile 29.5 of the Council road. She said the aftermath of the storm is still heartbreaking one year later, and that the city doesn’t look the same since.

“So much sand blew over; it’s erosion,” Aukon said. “We can’t even go down to the beach area. We have to jump down to get to the beach now.”

Aukon’s family is working on rebuilding the cabin but is waiting for shipments of material to arrive from Anchorage. She is hoping to finish the rebuild by the time the snow falls. As the rebuilding takes place, she still enjoys her mornings at camp.

“We’re so happy right there because it’s so quiet,” she said. “You get up early in the morning. You sit there and have a cup of coffee sitting out, looking at the sunrise.”

After the typhoon, FEMA used high-water marking data to prioritize disaster relief funding, and validate flood models.

The data was incorporated into an interactive tool from the federal government that allows users to see where damage from previous floods occurred. It’s the first data from the Alaska coastline to be used in the viewer.

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