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Planet Ark World Environment News Worst Of Alaska Storm Over But More Surges Expected

Date: 11-Nov-11
Country: ALASKA
Author: Yereth Rosen

Worst Of Alaska Storm Over But More Surges Expected Photo: Reuters/NOAA/Handout
This composite infrared imagery from NOAA weather satellites taken November 9, 2011 shows the storm moving over the Bering Strait region, bringing heavy winds and flooding to western Alaska.
Photo: Reuters/NOAA/Handout

The worst was over on Thursday for an "epic" winter storm that pounded Alaska's west coast with wind and snow and sent a 10-foot surge of seawater into Nome, officials said, leaving residents to assess the damage.

The storm, considered the strongest to hit western Alaska in several decades, has largely moved northwest toward the Russian Arctic, said Don Moore, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

However, a second, smaller Bering Sea storm is now brewing, and will send additional surges into the coastal towns and villages during high tide later in the day, said Moore, who has been working at the state's emergency operations center.

The surges will not be as dramatic as those from the first storm but could cause more flooding, he said.

"If the water levels were not elevated from the storm that had just passed, this other storm would not be a major issue," he said. "Once this passes off, this is when we'll see conditions start returning to normal."

Coastal flood warnings remained in place Thursday for much of northwestern Alaska.

Flood warnings had been lifted for southwestern areas, though a third storm, a more typical southwestern-moving Bering Sea weather event, was forecast to bring strong winds to that part of the state over the weekend.

The just-passed storm sent a 10-foot surge of seawater into Nome, Moore said. The record storm surge in Nome, a former Gold Rush boomtown famous today as the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, is 13.2 feet, set in a 1974 storm that meteorologists likened to this year's event, he said.

Officials had called it a "storm of epic proportions."

Along with the large amounts of seawater rushing into communities, the storm brought winds reported as high as about 90 miles an hour, blowing snow and whiteout conditions.

'PEOPLE HUNKERED DOWN'

Communities in the area -- regional hubs like Nome, with a population of 3,600, and smaller Native villages -- have reported flooding, building damage, power outages and other problems, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

In many of the sites, residents evacuated their homes to stay in local shelters set up at schools and other buildings, he said. The biggest group sheltered was in the Inupiat Eskimo village Point Hope, where 450 of the approximately 675 residents spent the night together.

No deaths or injuries were reported from the storm, Zidek said, adding that emergency officials attributed that outcome to a sparse population, very early warnings from the National Weather Service, careful emergency planning in communities and local knowledge about the elements.

"This area is used to severe weather and people know what to do," Zidek said. There was also little travel going on when the storm hit, he added. "People just hunkered down," he said.

It will likely take at least a few days to tally the damage, he said.

Moore said one aspect of damage is expected to be more erosion in Native villages that have already been coping with an accelerated loss of coastline.

In Kivalina, an Inupiat village planning to move its entire community inland to escape the erosion, the storm surge was measured at about 5.5 feet, enough to cause serious erosion in a coastal area that lacks a protective seawall, he said.

"There certainly is going to be some erosion that takes place, but I cannot say what the significance is at this time," Moore said.

Scientists said that blame for erosion in areas like Kivalina and Shishmaref, an Inupiat village north of Nome also planning to move inland, lies largely in the reduced sea ice and thawed coastal permafrost resulting from a warming climate in the far north.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)

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