ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A powerful storm that swept north through the Bering Strait on Saturday caused widespread flooding in several coastal communities in western Alaska, cutting power and causing residents to flee to higher ground.
The force of the water has ripped some houses off their foundations, and a house in Nome floated down a river until it got stuck on a bridge.
The powerful storm — the remnant of Typhoon Merbok — has affected weather patterns as far north as California, where high winds and a rare late summer rainstorm were expected.
No injuries or deaths were immediately reported in Alaska, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Officials had warned some places could experience their worst flooding in 50 years and it could take up to 14 hours for floodwaters to recede.
Governor Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration later in the day.
The nearly 1,000-mile storm front damaged roads and possibly other infrastructure, Dunleavy said at a news conference Saturday night. Officials will assess any impacts on water and sewage systems, seawalls, fuel storage areas, airports and ports.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were already in Alaska before the storm hit, and Dunleavy said they would stay to help with damage assessment.
“Our goal is to complete the assessments as quickly as possible,” he said. “We will act as quickly as possible to provide assistance, enable recovery and provide essentials that people need.”
Among the hardest-hit communities was Golovin, a village of about 170 residents mostly sheltering in a school or in three buildings on a hillside. Winds in the village said they were gusting in excess of 60 mph (95 km/h) and water rose 11 feet (3.3 metres) above the normal high tide line and was expected to rise another 2 feet (60 centimetres) on Saturday before reaching the summit.
“Most of the lower part of the community is awash with structures and buildings,” said Ed Plumb, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
Clarabelle Lewis, the facility manager for the tribal government, the Chinik Eskimo Community, was among those who took refuge on the hill above Golovin. She and others weathered the storm at the tribal office after securing items in their homes from the high winds and helping neighbors do the same.
“The winds howled; it was loud,” she said.
Most communities experienced wind gusts of 41 mph (66 km/h) to 67 mph (108 km/h) but Cape Romanzof had peak winds of 91 mph (146 km/h), the weather service said.
Lewis has never experienced a storm like this in the 20 years he has lived in Golovin.
“We’ve had flooding a few times in the past, but it’s never been this bad,” she said. “We’ve never had homes removed from their foundations.”
There were also reports of flooding in Hooper Bay, St Michael’s, Unalakleet and Shaktoolik, where waves broke over the berm in front of the community, Plumb said.
In Hooper Bay, more than 250 people took shelter at the school, Bethel public radio station KYUK reported. The village is one of the largest on the coast with almost 1,400 inhabitants.
The school’s assistant principal, Brittany Taraba, said three houses had been blown off their foundations and large parts of the village had been flooded.
Residents support each other, including donating recently caught and processed moose to feed those sheltering at the school.
“It’s really amazing to watch this community,” Taraba told KYUK.
Plumb said the storm would move through the Bering Strait on Saturday and then into the Chukchi Sea.
“And then it’ll park a little west of Point Hope and weaken,” he said of the community on Alaska’s northwest coast.
He said there would be high tides near the northern Bering Sea through Saturday night before levels eased by Sunday. Rising water levels further north, in the Chukchi Sea and Kotzebue Sound areas, were expected through Sunday.
In northern California, wind gusts of up to 40 mph were forecast Saturday night and into Sunday morning along coastal areas from Sonoma County to Santa Cruz and at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada, the weather service said.
Winds of this magnitude can blow down branches and drought-stressed trees and cause power outages, Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Walbrun said.
Storms were expected to begin Sunday morning, bringing up to 3 inches of rain into coastal Sonoma County and slightly less as the rain moves south into the San Francisco area and the Santa Cruz mountains, he said Walbrun.
“It’s quite a bit of rain for this early in the season,” he said, adding that the storms are expected to continue through at least Monday and wet commutes with slick roads.
In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains northeast of the state capital Sacramento, firefighters have been battling the state’s largest wildfire to date this year. While rain is needed, the winds were a concern for crews battling the mosquito fire, which was 21% contained as of Saturday morning.
“The winds will definitely cause erratic fire behavior” that could ignite new hotspots despite the welcome humidity, said Scott McLean, spokesman for Cal Fire. “The rain won’t put out the fire, but it will help.”
Gecker reported from San Francisco.