By: Scott Sistek, KOMONews.com & MARY PEMBERTON Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaska doesn't get hurricanes, which by definition are tropical storms, but what's bearing down on the western coast of the nation's largest state might be just as powerful. Only instead of torrential rains, they are expecting blizzard-like conditions amid heavy snow.
The unusual storm in the Bering Sea is packing hurricane-force winds and 35-foot waves - a type of storm not seen for decades in Alaska. It was moving rapidly Tuesday toward the western Alaska coastline.
The storm was traveling at 60 mph and had reached the western Aleutian Islands, said Andy Brown, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage. It was expected to reach the beachfront city of Nome by late Tuesday, with winds hitting 85 mph.
The wind and waves had started picking up by late morning, said Scott Johnson, 28, a Nome banker, prompting some people to evacuate inland to stay with friends or family in case predictions for a big ocean wave surge prove to be true. At 1 p.m. Alaska Standard Time, Nome reported blowing snow and wind gusts to 44 mph.
"The waves are starting to go up against our seawall," he said from his second-story apartment that sits on the ocean.
Johnson said he loaded a couple of bags into his truck and got gas so he's ready to go.
"If there are 30-foot waves, A, they might be coming over the sea and B, they might be coming into my apartment," he said.
Stores are still pretty well stocked, but some businesses closed early.
"The general view out here is we get storms like this on a fairly regular basis," Johnson said.
"We kind of shrug it off. But when the National Weather Service is trying to sound an alarm with 30-foot seas and this is a rare storm, take it seriously. I think they're taking it seriously with a grain of salt."
The bigger concern will be for Alaska Natives in the 18 villages in the region, where the brunt of the storm was supposed to hit, he said.
"They're going to get hit more and have less infrastructure than we do," Johnson said.
The storm was expected to produce at least a 10-foot surge, forcing dozens of coastal communities to make emergency preparations. Brown advised Bering Sea mariners and people living in coastal communities from Wales to Unalakleet to "prepare for a really nasty storm."
"It is very dangerous," Brown said. "Everybody is spreading the word to let them know this is a major storm."
Storms of this magnitude are not uncommon farther south in the Gulf of Alaska, but this storm, described by Brown as "big, deep, low," was taking an unusual path through the northern and eastern Bering Sea. Forecasters estimated the central pressure of the storm at 948 milibars (27.99 inches of mercury) putting it on par with a strong Category 3 hurricane.
The windows were boarded up Tuesday morning at the Polar CafDe, a popular restaurant that faces the ocean in Nome. Items stored in the basement had been carried upstairs and were in one of the hotel rooms, said waitress Andrea Surina. Plans were being made to move the propane tanks to a safer spot, she said.
"It is blowing sideways snow. The water hasn't really come up much yet but it is starting to," Surina said.
The approaching storm, however, wasn't keeping the regulars away. They were sitting at their usual table, talking about the storm, she said.
"It is heading right for us," Surina said. "Nobody misses a good storm."
The last time forecasters saw something similar was in November 1974, when Nome also took the brunt of the storm. That surge measured more than 13 feet, pushing beach driftwood above the level of the previous storm of its type in 1913.
Winds from the current storm were expected to push large amounts of water into Norton Sound, raising sea levels 10 feet above normal through Wednesday.
That will cause beach erosion and flooding and may push Norton Bay ice on shore, forecasters said.
Seas were expected to begin rising along the coastline Tuesday afternoon and gain height rapidly at night before cresting in Nome on Wednesday.
"It will wash pretty far up the beach," said Ted Fathauer, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
Some low-lying areas and a road that runs along the Nome beachfront could experience flooding, he said.
First responders and emergency managers in the communities likely to be affected by the storm were in contact with the State Emergency Coordination Center in Anchorage, which was working with federal and state agencies on storm response plans, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
"They are aware of the situation and are taking steps in each of those communities to respond," he said.
The village of Point Hope, which sits on the tip of a peninsula with the Arctic Ocean on one side and the Bering Sea on the other, is 7 to 8 feet above sea level, Mayor Steve Oomittuk said. The Inupiat Eskimo village of about 700 people has no sea wall and no evacuation road. If evacuation becomes necessary, everyone will go to the school because it sits on higher ground and is big enough to accommodate everyone, he said.
Oomittuk was meeting Tuesday afternoon with fire and rescue personnel and others that might be needed when the storm hits. "We are ready," he said.
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.
Zidek said Kivalina has emergency operations plans in place.
Brown said the state emergency coordination center and the National Weather Service were in contact with emergency personnel in numerous communities. Another conference call was planned for Tuesday afternoon.
"Everybody is aware that the storm is coming," he said.
<B>National Weather Service Statement on Storm</b>
Here are exerts from the National Weather Service's ominous warning issued to Alaska residents in the the path of the storm:
"A POWERFUL AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS STORM OF NEAR RECORD OR RECORD MAGNITUDE IS BEARING DOWN ON THE WEST COAST OF ALASKA. AT 9 AM THIS MORNING THE STORM CENTER WAS LOCATED ABOUT 600 MILES SOUTHWEST OF ST LAWRENCE ISLAND. THE STORM IS FORECAST TO MOVE RAPIDLY NORTHEAST TODAY AND TONIGHT WITH THE CENTER MOVING ACROSS THE CHUKOTSK PENINSULA TONIGHT.
ON WEDNESDAY THE STORM WILL TAKE A NORTHWESTWARD TRACK INTO THE CHUKCHI SEA. THE STORM WILL BRING EXTREMELY STRONG WINDS TO ALL OF THE ALASKA WEST COAST BEGINNING THIS AFTERNOON OVER ST LAWRENCE ISLAND AND BEGINNING THIS EVENING OVER THE REMAINDER OF THE WEST COAST...ACCOMPANIED BY WIDESPREAD MAJOR COASTAL FLOODING AND SEVERE BEACH EROSION OVER MANY PARTS OF THE COASTLINE.
THE WIND WILL PUSH LARGE AMOUNTS OF WATER INTO NORTON SOUND...RAISING SEA LEVELS TO 7 TO 9 FEET ABOVE NORMAL IN NORTON SOUND AND ALONG THE BERING STRAIT COAST. THE EXTREMELY STRONG WINDS WILL PRODUCE HIGH WAVES WHICH WILL PUSH THE HIGH WATER FARTHER INLAND. OVER THE BERING STRAIT COAST AND ST LAWRENCE ISLAND... SUSTAINED WINDS ARE EXPECTED TO REACH 75 MPH WITH MAXIMUM GUSTS OF 90 TO 100 MPH.
ALONG THE CHUKCHI COAST...WIND SPEEDS OF 65 TO 70 MPH WITH GUSTS AS HIGH AS 90 MPH ARE EXPECTED. IN THE NOME AREA...SUSTAINED WINDS AS HIGH AS 60 MPH ARE EXPECTED...WITH GUSTS TO 70 MPH. ALMOST ALL OTHER AREAS OF THE WEST COAST WILL EXPERIENCE MAXIMUM WIND SPEEDS OF AT LEAST 50 TO 60 MPH. WIDESPREAD MAJOR COASTAL FLOODING AND SEVERE BEACH EROSION IS EXPECTED...
ADDITIONALLY...HIGH SEA LEVELS IN NORTON SOUND WILL CAUSE COASTAL FLOODING IN LOW LYING AREAS ALONG THE SOUTHERN SHORE. THE STORM WILL PRODUCE BLIZZARD OR NEAR BLIZZARD CONDITIONS OVER MOST AREAS OF THE WESTERN ALASKA MAINLAND...WITH VISIBILITY REDUCED TO NEAR ZERO IN SNOW AND BLOWING SNOW...
PEOPLE ARE URGED TO SEEK SHELTER NOW AND POSTPONE TRAVEL INTO THE BACK COUNTRY UNTIL THE STORM ABATES. ALL BOAT OPERATORS SHOULD SEEK SAFETY IN PORT IMMEDIATELY IF THEY HAVE NOT ALREADY DONE SO. IN AREAS WHERE BEACH EROSION AND COASTAL FLOODING IS EXPECTED...SMALL BOATS AND PERSONAL PROPERTY SHOULD BE MOVED WELL AWAY FROM THE SHORE AND TO HIGHER GROUND.
AGAIN...THIS WILL BE EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND LIFE THREATENING STORM OF AN EPIC MAGNITUDE RARELY EXPERIENCED. ALL PEOPLE IN THE AREA SHOULD TAKE PRECAUTIONS TO SAFEGUARD THEIR LIVES AND PROPERTY.
Follow Twitter hashtag #akstorm to see the latest developments from people riding out the storm.