Bering Strait communities resume air service, plan to fly in drinking water after massive storm

Water washes over Seppela Street in Nome on Saturday, September 17, 2022. (From Alaska DOT & PF)

As water levels dropped on Sunday, residents of the Bering Strait region began to take stock of the damage caused by the strongest fall storm to hit western Alaska in 50 years. . Sea berms have been destroyed, homes have been flooded or toppled from their foundations, and sources of drinking water have been contaminated.

In the community of Teller, National Weather Service forecasts had predicted that the 230-plus residents would see their homes completely flooded during the storm. But Mayor Blanche Okbaok-Garnie says the community was prepared and a bit lucky.

“We lost parts of our dike. We lost a lot of the rocks and gradients that hold the levee up and then we lost some of the planks, treated planks,” Okbaok-Garnie said. “But for the most part…the houses were dry. Some of the water is up and around some houses and boats.

Teller still experienced rising water levels from the three surrounding water sources and some subsequent erosion. But Garnie says the damage was not as severe as expected.

In Shaktoolik, which lost its protective berm during the storm, resident Gloria Andrew said Sunday that she and other residents who had taken shelter at the local school overnight Saturday have since returned home. Many residents were out on Sunday to collect the surplus wood.

The storm destroyed Shaktoolik’s berm, everything that stands between the village and the salt water waves. (Gloria Andrew)

Across the Norton Sound in Unalakleet, residents were evacuated on Saturday afternoon to the local school until the advisory was lifted on Sunday morning. Despite high water and debris on the airport ramp, the local airport was operational on Sunday.

The city office also reported a complete loss of water pressure during the storm, along with power outages, resulting in a boil water advisory and water conservation until so that the city can reach its pumping station.

Temporary relief could come to Unalakleet and several other Norton Sound communities that are without clean water.

Nome Mayor John Handeland told the city’s emergency operations meeting on Sunday that Northern Air Cargo, other cargo carriers and the Alaska National Guard would provide bottled water and supplies to communities without clean water.

“NAC has a few freighters that should be coming our way,” Handeland said. “Their first shipment appears to be bottled water to be distributed to communities in our area. Probably the biggest concern I mentioned to Governor and (Alaska National Guard Adjutant) General (Torrence) Saxe is the food supply and the routing of bypass mail and cargo.

Despite rising waters threatening the Nome airstrip over the weekend, there was no standing water on the runway or significant damage, so flights resumed on Sunday.

Throughout the Nome area, water levels reached about nine feet above the normal high tide line during the storm. That’s according to Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

“We can say with certainty that this was the strongest storm surge for Nome since the great storm of November 1974,” Thoman said. “It was about eight inches longer than the Bering Sea superstorm of 2011.”

a houseboat leaning against a bridge
A floating home rests against Nome’s Snake River Bridge on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (From Alaska DOT&PF)

With the waters rising on Saturday, a house in Belmont Point was swept into the Snake River and stuck under the bridge.

City officials enlisted the help of gold miner Sean Pomrenke to remove the house in sections and transport the debris on Sunday as part of their recovery duties.

Other city priorities include helping the seven local residents who evacuated their homes. Currently, they are staying at the Nome Recreation Center, which was set up as an emergency shelter during the storm. This shelter should be operational in the next few days.

Locally, the cleanup process has already begun, with the coordination of the State Department of Transportation to make Nome’s roads passable again. Calvin Schaeffer, DOT regional superintendent for the Western District, said the agency will assess damage to the Nome-Council Road, which has been significantly eroded in some sections of the city’s east end.

“We’re trying to get a grader out to Cape Town [Nome] then beyond that, assess the damage and maybe take an engineer with him,” Schaeffer said. “Then we’re going to take it from there and basically see what we can do to reopen it, and do what we can before winter.”

The Nome City Council is due to meet at noon on Monday to make an official disaster proclamation for the storm.

Alaska Public Media reporter Wesley Early contributed information to this story.

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