IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Exiting Alaska storm leaves trails of debris

/ Source: staff and news service reports

A massive storm that battered Alaska's western coast with hurricane-strength winds and towering sea surges has passed out of the region in a much weaker state, but it left behind damage and worries that a man may have been swept out to a churning sea.

So far, 37 communities have reported some form of damage, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state's emergency management agency. Most of those communities have opened emergency community shelters, Zidek said.

The strongest storm to hit the state's western coast in almost four decades also left behind tales of human endurance.

In one remote village that lost heat and power early Wednesday, about 20 vehicles lined up along an airstrip and used their headlights to guide in a plane carrying repair workers.

Other residents there came together and did traditional Eskimo dances used during whaling season to seek good weather.

On Thursday, rescuers searched for a 26-year-old man who authorities said may have been washed into the Bering Sea during the storm.

Kyle Komok, of Teller, was last seen at 4 p.m. Wednesday as he headed toward a jetty where waves were cresting as high as 10 feet, Alaska State Troopers said.

Komok's sister, Maggie Christofferson, of Kodiak, told The Associated Press that her brother is an experienced mechanic.

"We're hoping he's just stuck somewhere, and we're just praying that he's safe."

Emergency responders called the storm an epic event that displaced residents, flooded the shoreline, ripped up roofs and knocked out power in many villages.

The process of gauging the full extent of the damage will begin soon, officials said Thursday. They noted some of the hardest-hit communities are in areas where winter daylight comes late in the day and mornings are in pitch darkness, which slowed down inspections.

Another storm stepped in to replace the tempest, but forecasters said the new storm was much weaker and expected to begin dying down later Thursday. It brought winds ranging from 20 to 40 mph, said National Weather Service meteorologist Don Moore.

In comparison, the storm that pounded the Bering Sea coast this week carried gusts of nearly 90 mph and created tides as high as 10 feet above normal.

Though far less powerful, the new storm contributed to already high water levels and kept them from receding as quickly, Moore said.

The just-passed storm sent a 10-foot surge of seawater into Nome. 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.

Communities hard hit include the northwest Alaska villages of Point Hope, built on a large gravel spit, and Kivalina, one of the most eroded communities in the state.

Point Hope Mayor Steve Oomittuk said homes in the Inupiat Eskimo community have been without electricity and heat since early Wednesday, after winds gusting at 80 mph slammed an old wooden shack into a power pole with five main lines, cutting it in half. The building then broke apart, sending wood flying.

"There's a lot of debris in that area," Oomittuk said Thursday morning, soon after repair workers landed at the airstrip.

With the lights out, vehicles lined up along the runway to guide the plane with their headlights.

Oomittuk said the winds were too strong during the storm to get a full picture of the damage around the community.

More than 500 of Point Hope's nearly 700 residents have been staying at the village school, which has its own generator. Principal Greg Wilbanks said the school would remain a community shelter Thursday night if power was not restored as quickly as hoped. That would mean classes would continue to be canceled for the rest of the week.

Among those seeking shelter at the school was Nellie Sears, the school librarian. She said every classroom was full of residents seeking shelter.

For a while there was a warning Wednesday that the barreling storm could get worse. So villagers started performing the traditional Eskimo dances they do during whaling season, when they are seeking good weather. Just before 10 p.m., they got word that the warning had been canceled, Sears said.

"We dance to get help," she said.

Kivalina, 75 miles down the coast, got a "good surge from the ocean," said village spokeswoman Colleen Swan. But mornings are very dark and the extent of flooding was not immediately known beyond water washing over the village dump site and onto the beach, she said.

She later toured the area and said there was no damage to the dump even though water reached a part of it. She said the beach was stressed and the ice lagoon cracked by the huge waves clocked in at 25 mph. At first glance, the village escaped with minimal impact.

"People were looking around and I think a lot of them are totally relieved," she said. "We're very thankful it did not get bad enough to flood the village. Not knowing was the worst."

Most of the community's 460 residents, including those nearest the ocean and lagoon, were evacuated to the school.

Swan said the door of a community building was ripped off during the storm's fury. When she awoke Thursday morning, there was a quiet stillness.

"The moon is out. It's very beautiful," she said Thursday morning. "It is very calm, as if nothing ever happened."

The storm battered the oceanfront homes in the tiny village of Shaktoolik, but structures appeared to have been spared, said Michael Sookiayak, a planner for the Shaktoolik tribal council.

"There has been no preliminary reports of major damage here in Shaktoolik," he said Thursday morning. "Of course, that might change over the course of a day."

Sookiayak is among those who live on the oceanfront.

"I think the worst part for me and my family ... was watching the waves come up closer and closer to the houses on the ocean side of the community," he said.

The waves crested over the 2009 storm line, which is just a few feet from the homes, Sookiayak said.

A few families evacuated to the school, including Sookiayak's children, but he rode out the storm Wednesday at home.

"I think this storm tested the will of the people in Shaktoolik," he said. "There was a lot of anxiety in the community."

Still of concern is a little spit of land about three miles from the community surrounded by a river on one side and the ocean on the other, separated by just a few feet.

Sookiayak said officials haven't yet had a chance to survey the area.

"And if that ocean erodes into the river, then we basically become an island," he 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.