Western Alaska residents braced for an unusual Bering Sea storm packing hurricane-force winds and giant waves.
By late Tuesday night, National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Kearney in Fairbanks said the front of the storm had reached Nome, bringing 60 mph winds, blowing snow and visibility of just a quarter mile.
The tiny community of Wales 80 miles northwest of Nome was seeing 75 mph gusts — hurricane strength — while the center of the storm was reported over St. Lawrence Island, southwest of Nome in the Bering, Kearney said.
Phone circuits to Nome rang busy late Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, state emergency management officials said some residents in the storm’s path had already headed for emergency shelters.
Seventy miles north of Nome in the village of Brevig Mission, teacher AnnMarie Rudstrom had made plans to move her family to higher ground from their home on a spit separating the village lagoon and the ocean.
The ocean by Tuesday afternoon had started to churn in shades of gray.
“It’s pretty ominous looking and the waves are getting bigger,” Rudstrom said.
Bryan Fisher of the state emergency management office said some residents of Savoonga and Gambell on St. Lawrence Island and in St. Michael southeast of Nome had already headed for emergency shelters.
State officials warned residents to secure home heating fuel tanks in case sea water flooded into communities. Making communities more vulnerable than in past years is the lack of shore-fast sea ice, said Jeff Osinsky, the Weather Service’s regional warning coordinator. “The presence of sea ice can sometimes act to protect coastal areas,” he said.
With winds expected from the southwest, south-facing communities could be especially vulnerable, he said.
Wind and waves 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.
“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.
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.
“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.
The windows were boarded up Tuesday morning at the Polar Café, 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.
The approaching storm, however, wasn’t keeping the regulars away. They were sitting at their usual table, talking about the storm, she said.
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