As Western Alaska storm weakens and floodwater recedes, damage assessments begin across hundreds of miles of coastline

The remnants of a massive Pacific typhoon that battered a thousand-mile stretch of Western Alaska dissipated Sunday morning, with floodwaters dropping and communities assessing damage from one of the worst storms on record.

“The climax is done,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Kaitlyn Lardeo on Sunday. “It is a weakening system.”

The storm left a trail of wreckage across coastal Alaska, with flooding, telecommunications outages and damage to buildings and infrastructure including roads, docks, seawalls and village runways.

As of Sunday evening, there were no reports of deaths, serious injuries or people missing, said Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The storm system was continuing to move north, where it’s expected to stall and rapidly weaken in the Chukchi Sea.

Flooding in Kotzebue

The storm is expected to stay in place for the next couple of days, said weather service meteorologist Jonathan Christ during a Sunday video update. As a result, “the water levels in this area are going to be slower to fall,” he said.

“The good news with the system staying in place longer is that we’re no longer expecting widespread, or really any impacts, in regards to coastal flooding from Point Lay to Wainwright up to Utqiaġvik,” he said. “The water is just not expected to get high enough to cause impacts at this time.”

[Alaska Community Foundation creates fund to accept donations for storm-ravaged Western Alaska]

The weather system is what’s left of what was Typhoon Merbok, which formed farther east in the Pacific Ocean than where such storms typically appear.

Parts of Kotzebue were flooded late Saturday and into Sunday morning, with residents of some low-lying parts of town sheltering elsewhere overnight. As of Sunday afternoon, there were no reports of evacuations in Kivalina and Deering, and “no other communities in the Northwest Arctic Borough have reported any major impacts,” said Tessa Baldwin, Director of Public Safety at the Northwest Arctic Borough Department of Public Safety .

Flooding in Kotzebue

Farther south, water levels dropped throughout Sunday in communities at the mouths of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, Norton Sound and the Seward Peninsula.

“They’ve passed their climaxes for this event,” Lardeo said.

Western Alaska Storm areas

As the worst of the wind and flooding subsided, the state’s Emergency Operation Center was assessing the damage, gathering reports of battered infrastructure and property from communities up and down the Bering Sea coast.

According to Dunleavy five communities are known to be “severely damaged”: Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Nome, Newtok and Golovin.

Hooper Bay Western Alaska storm flood
Hooper Bay Western Alaska storm flood

“We’re going to move as quickly as possible, and we’ll be focusing on the communities that have really received damage and really need the help the most,” Dunleavy said. “But all committees will be reviewed, and wherever there is help that is needed, we’ll be getting that help there as soon as possible.”

Even communities that did not get the worst of the impacts are contending with major problems in the days ahead. Unalakleet, Elim, Hooper Bay and Golovin are facing water issues. Hundreds of people sheltered at the school in Hooper Bay over the weekend, including residents of nearby Kotlik, according to public radio station KYUK. Most of the fishing boats in Chevak are gone, according to reporting by KYUK and Alaska Public Media.

“There’s a lot of impacts all across the region. We understand that there’s damage to residences, that there’s damage to infrastructure in many communities and the recovery process is going to be widespread,” said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

[Whipped by winds from storm, popular Nome restaurant destroyed in a Saturday fire]

Telecom impacts

One of the issues facing state emergency responders is that telecommunication coverage in some communities was inconsistent throughout Sunday, dropping out because of impacts to infrastructure or loss of local power sources.

“Has communications been impacted? yes,” Zidek said. “Is power impacts? Yes. To what degrees? That’s really a changing and evolving situation.”

GCI, which provides phone and internet service to many of the affected communities, said its headquarters in Anchorage was working with local technicians in Western Alaska to monitor system outages.

“Our current assessments indicate that consumer network services are impacted in Chevak, Elim, Golovin, Hooper Bay, Newtok, White Mountain, Shaktoolik, Stebbins, St. George, Unalakleet,” said GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside. “Internet was briefly out but has been restored in Emmonak, Greyling, and Kwigillingok.”

[Earlier coverage: Worst storm in years batters Western Alaska coast]

“Some of the consumer outages are likely due to commercial power outages and flooding that impact home internet equipment,” she said, adding that as storm conditions continue to subsidy “GCI teams are prioritizing dispatch needs while staging resources and equipment.”

Damaged infrastructure

As of Sunday afternoon, state officials said they believe that all runways at airports in the region are operable. Several runways were reportedly inundated Saturday and could not accept aircraft.

Annette Piscoya, Nome, storm

Crews of heavy equipment operators had managed to clear debris from runways across much of the region Sunday morning, according to Dept. of Transportation spokesperson Shannon McCarthy. Some communities saw damage to lights along airstrips because of flooding, she said.

Melanie Bahnke, head of the Nome-based regional non-profit Kawerak, said information was still coming in from the 15 Bering Strait communities served Nome. So far three homes are believed to be gone in Golovin. According to Bahnke, the sanitation road out of Shishmaref used for emptying trash and honey-buckets “is wiped out.” Other communities reported flooding and residents evacuating to shelter over Saturday night.

Along the roads out of Nome, people are discovering their family cabins and fish camps destroyed or mangled. Bahnke said her husband checked their cabin out beyond Cape Nome late Saturday.

“My smoke house is gone, my outhouse is gone. The picnic table and a canoe are gone,” she said. Overnight the winds had shifted direction and she was unsure if the main structure had made it. “Other people have lost their cabins.”

Large tracts of the eastern portion of Nome’s Front Street were sheared of their asphalt paving and severely eroded.

Alaska Airlines was able to fly a commercial plane into Nome on Sunday morning. Jet service was unable to make it to Bethel or Kotzebue, according to Alaska Airlines regional vice president Marilyn Romano.

Govt. Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration on Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, head of the Alaska National Guard, said on Sunday all guardsmen and members of the State Defense Force in the western region had been activated. More air support is headed to western Alaska: three Guard helicopters in Nome and one in Bethel, as well as a C-17 and a C-130, both which are large military cargo planes, on standby.

“It is critical to have boots on the ground. So we want to start this today,” Saxe said.

He said the goal is to get 10 guardsmen in Hooper Bay, where hundreds of meals are being provided to sheltering residents, along with guardsmen sent to Bethel and Nome.

The governor said the state is marshaling resources to bring food, water and other essential supplies into impacted communities would begin Monday. He reiterated that fast approaching “freeze up,” expected in western Alaska in a few short weeks, meaning the recovery process would need to begin and be finished quickly.

Bryan Fisher, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said state officials, including a state emergency manager, would be deployed to Western Alaska Monday. They will be joined by members of the American Red Cross from the Lower 48 who will be flying into the region to start assessing where food, water and shelter are needed.

Bahnke said she had been speaking with the congressional delegation Sunday in the hopes of getting a federal disaster declaration.

“The tribes could do it directly with FEMA, but it requires a 20 percent local match, which just isn’t possible,” Bahnke said. She hopes the state will put in the request to federal emergency managers.

Though Dunleavy has not yet asked for a federal disaster declaration, the state expects to do so in the next couple days.

“We’re going to be working with them to do the assessment piece,” Fisher said, “and that’s really a backstop, provided the governor’s disaster programs, (which) have been activated since Saturday morning, will essentially provide the upfront cash to do this response.”

“If that’s approved by the President, there’ll be additional financial resources that will come to bear for the long term,” Fisher said.

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