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Powerful storm strikes Alaska bringing historic surge, coastal flooding

One of the strongest storms in at least a decade struck Alaska Saturday with hurricane force winds, high seas and rain that caused coastal flooding.

A low pressure front in the Bering Straight was spinning as wide and strong as any winter storm, but instead of bringing cold weather, it was fed by the volatile air from the former Typhoon Merbok, forecasters said.

The result was 5 inches of rain along the coast south of Anchorage on Saturday, with a flood warning in effect for that coastline through 10 p.m., federal forecasters said.

The storm conditions, including wind gusts above 50 mph, were expected overnight for the state’s Arctic and west coasts, prompting Gov. Mike Dunleavy to declare a disaster for affected areas.

The declaration included the opening of an emergency operations center. Dunleavy said Saturday no injuries were reported.

Charlie Brown, mayor of the tribal community of Golovin, said about 40 people have been displaced to higher ground as floodwaters inundated the lower half of city.

In Nome on Saturday afternoon, the National Weather Service noted there had been “dangerous coastal flooding” and blamed “a very angry sea.”

“Waves and storm surge are pushing into the community,” the office tweeted.

Flooding was also reported in Shaktoolik, a small city on the Bering Sea coast. Overnight, multiple gusts of greater than 75 mph, which would qualify them as hurricane-force, were recorded at Adak Island, part of the Aleutian Islands.

The extreme weather prompted Alaska Airlines to cancel its Saturday flights to Nome and Kotzebue as well as a morning flight to Bethel, it said in a statement.

Flight tracker FlightAware said eight flights to or from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport had been canceled Saturday, and 35 had been delayed.

Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday.Peggy Fagerstrom / AP
Water surrounds the Mini Convention Center, which is also home to the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
Water surrounds the Mini Convention Center, which is also home to the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday.Peggy Fagerstrom / AP

The front, which was moving north, represents a strange brew for earth scientists.

“It derives its energy from the warm sea surface,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Shriver, who spoke from Anchorage. “This is an exceptionally rare event.”

The National Weather Service office in Fairbanks warned the storm could be the strongest in over a decade.

“Impacts may exceed the 2011 Bering Sea Superstorm, and some locations may experience their worst coastal flooding in nearly 50 years,” it said in a tweet Thursday. “Peak water levels will persist for 10 to 14 hours before water recedes.”

At video briefing on the storm Saturday, National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Plumb said the front surpassed those expectations, at least when it came to storm surge, which measured 6 to 8 feet above median high tide Saturday at Point Hope in the Chukchi Sea and at 10 to 12 feet along the Bering Sea coastline.

“The surge at Nome surpassed the superstorm of 2011 and the great storm of 1974,” he said.

On the west coast of the state, Plumb said the storm had yet to peak, which was expected Saturday night. The Yukon Delta could see its worst flooding of the event.

“We’re expecting water levels to continue to rise,” he said.

Buoys on Friday recorded waves of more than 50 feet in the south central Bering Sea, and the lowest pressure ever measured in the sea in September was recorded Friday, but remained unverified, Shriver said.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Ian Gray said Saturday that seas along the state’s west coast were 25 to 30 feet, with winds of 30 mph. Small boats were advised to stay at port, and the agency had at least two cutters in the Bering Sea and two helicopters staged on Kodiak.

“We are ready,” Gray said.

The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management called for a heightened state of awareness because a “strong storm” was en route.

“There hasn’t been a September storm this strong in the northern Bering Sea region in the past 70 years,” tweeted Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

A coastal flood warning and high wind warning was in effect through Sunday for Alaska’s Southern Seward Peninsula Coast.

High winds and heavy rain can be expected for much of next week on mainland Alaska, federal forecasters said. A second, weaker pulse related to the front was expected to come ashore Sunday night, according to the National Weather Service.

Calm on the mainland was possible by the end of the week, forecasters said.

By then, however, Alaska’s winter weather machine may have already started churning out the kind of low pressure systems that are a trademark of December, January, February, and March — with a few days of summer still left on the calendar.

“It could be the start of our busy time of the year,” Shriver said.

Jacob Cavaiani and Erick Mendoza contributed.

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