Winds down but high water just starting as ‘exceptionally strong storm’ batters Northwest Alaska

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Morning light Friday along the Arctic coast revealed the toll taken by an ongoing storm hitting Northwest Alaska, as winds began to subside but problems associated with rising water were just beginning.

Nelda Nungasak reported erosion and road closures in Utqiagvik, but it was a photo she shot and shared on social media that told a cautionary story of what residents may experience as floodwaters from storm-associated surges pushed into communities.

The photo shows white-capped waves bearing down on flooded Stevenson Street, a main road that parallels the water’s edge, as if the Arctic Ocean was moving inland.

Jerica Niayuq Leavitt reported major flooding in some areas of Utqiagvik, saying that “waves are crashing in the Sadie Neakok playground. … The operators are working diligently to protect our drinking water source by using sand bags.”

Also flooded was the Nalukataġvik, an outdoor area where the city holds its annual whaling feast, according to Leavitt.

Utgiagvik Storm

In Point Lay, “the storm surge has all but covered the barrier island,” according to resident Bill Tracey.

“Some of our boats that weren’t pulled up enough are flooded, as the shoreline here in town (is) completely underwater,” Tracey said. “The bluff we live on is eroding with every wave.”

Forecasters said high water was expected to continue through Saturday across a roughly 1,600-mile stretch of Alaska’s coast, a section dotted with small villages as well as hub cities like Kotzebue and Nome.

“We are expecting significant erosion along the coast, really from Utqiagvik all the way down to Unalakleet,” said Jonathan Chriest, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, which is tracking the storm and providing updates to community leaders and emergency officials.

As of Friday morning, the agency had received numerous reports of damage including power outages in Savoonga that began Wednesday night; roofs and windows damaged in Kivalina; water over the east end of the old runway in Golovin; a dock damaged and seawater entering the lagoon at Point Lay; and damage to the school roof in Wales.

High winds in Nome also snapped the power pole supplying the National Weather Service’s NEXRAD radar, Chriest said.

The winds associated with the storm had generally peaked by Friday morning, with the exceptions of Golovin and Unalakleet, he said.

Storm surges, however, were expected to cause continuing rising water through Saturday except in Utqiagvik, where they could start dropping Friday night, according to forecasts. As winds turn westerly Friday afternoon, they will blow waves directly onshore in Wainwright and Utqiagvik, Chriest said.

The new storm comes on the heels of the destructive remnants of Typhoon Merbok, which last month left a path of destruction in Western Alaska, washing out roads and flooding homes in 40 communities along about 1,300 miles of Alaska’s coast, according to a federal summary. The storm produced hurricane-force winds, higher-than-normal tidal ranges and storm surges of up to 10 feet above mean high water.

A new chunk of $9 million in federal transportation funding was already mostly spent repairing significant road damage in Nome, state officials say.

This storm is also “exceptionally strong,” Chriest said, with west winds blowing waves onshore. The back-to-back storms are different from the usual fall storms that hit the region because they’re powerful and occurring before sea ice forms, creating a protective barrier along the coast. They’re also taking a track that puts them on the worst path for flooding.

Warmer water in the North Pacific Ocean “is certainly a key factor as well,” he said.

— Reporter Alena Naiden contributed to this story.

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