Mega-storm hits region, causing massive destruction
By Diana Haecker
“This storm is so big that it will take about three hours for the sun to fully set on.” This was the caption to a Facebook post by the National Weather Service Alaska Region, showing a satellite photo of a gigantic weather system swirl spanning an area south of the Aleutian Island chain to the Beaufort Sea. Everything caught in the middle, about 1,000 miles of western Alaskan coastline, was in the path of gale and even hurricane force winds, pushing the ocean to batter coastlines and cause extensive erosion. As of press time on Monday, city officials going on three days without much sleep were bleary-eyed, Nomeites began picking up the pieces, pumping out basements and cleaning up an unimaginable mess. School was canceled, the Post Office announced closure until the storm water is pumped out of the building.
The worst part of the storm hit Nome Friday night, Saturday and into Saturday night. After the worst was over, the City, the Dept. of Transportation and residents are clearing debris left behind by one of the biggest storms in recorded history descending on western Alaska
By Sunday, the sea level at Norton Sound has dropped, the wind subsided, and only occasional rain showers fell. The destruction left by the remnants of tropical typhoon Merbok are mindboggling: piles of driftwood, rocks, and hundreds of red cap bottles and debris lined the streets. A house was dislodged from Belmont Point and floated in the coastal Nome-Council Highway is buried under sand and ocean debris. Aerial video footage posted on social media shows sand covering the road like snowdrifts in the winter and only a few camp sites still standing. The damage to subsistence camps is unknown as the Nome-Council Road is impassable past mile 24. Yards along east Front Street are torn apart and, courtesy of the ocean, driftwood logs, sand and gravel was deposited in driveways. The asphalt of one of the few paved roads in Nome was peeled off and the boulders of the seawall were rearranged as if a giant had played with marbles. Sounds of heavy equipment moving through city streets are now predominant, replacing the roar of the ocean waves and the eerie, high-pitched screams of gale force winds.
. In the middle of the storm, another tragedy struck: a fire broke out at Bering Sea Restaurant and burned the entire Front Street building down to the ground in a matter of a few hours. Winds drove thick black smoke all over town, smothering everything downwind. City Hall, directly in the path of the smoke, was still airing out the building on Monday and sent city employees home early as heat was cut to allow for open windows and fans to get rid of the stinging smoke smell.
Chronology of a monster storm
Rick Thoman, Alaska Climate Specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks advised the region early last week of the approaching storm.
Tropical Storm Merbok formed on Sunday, Sept. 11 over the subtropical Pacific west of Wake Island, about 2,300 miles south-southwest of Attu in the western Aleutians, he said. “This is an area where historically very few tropical storms have formed because the ocean water is not usually warm enough. But this year, this area is in the very large portion of the North Pacific Ocean with (near) record high sea surface temperatures. This is a clear implication of climate change: without the warming oceans Merbok would not have formed there,” Thoman said.
Merbok strengthened to a Typhoon on Tuesday, Sept. 13, about 1,900 miles south-southwest of Attu and tracked north-northeast. As the typhoon transitioned from a small tropical cyclone —fed by energy from thunderstorms and warm ocean water— to the standard mid-latitude storm, getting energy from differences in air temperatures, the wind field greatly expanded. The storm intensified rapidly as it moved toward the Aleutians and into the Bering Sea, which further added to the large size of the storm.
On Wednesday morning, an ominous message arrived in local email boxes. Thoman warned Nomeites that a super storm is headed towards western Alaska, with certain coastal flooding to occur. The alert was frequently updated to show models of the expected surge.
Ex-Merbok reached peak intensity on early morning Friday, Sept. 16 when the center was located about 300 miles north-northeast of Shemya.
During the day, the storm weakened only very slightly. As the center moved north of St. Matthew Island early on Sept. 17 it started to weaken more quickly.
At Nome, wind speeds increased mid-day Sept. 16 and continued until mid-day Sept 18. The peak gust at Nome was 59 mph, which is the highest in September in the past 25 years. The highest winds were at Golovin airport before the power went out on Saturday morning. Winds were sustained 50 mph gusting to 65 mph.
The long duration of strong south winds over the entire eastern Bering Sea was the primary contributor to the high water, with the force of the wind effectively acting as a plow pushing water to the north and piling it up along the way, said Thoman. The average wind speed at Nome Airport was 34.5 mph and was the third highest daily average speed in the past 50 years. Only January 17, 2014 (35.8 mph) and November 21, 2017, (34.7 mph) were windier.
How it unfolded in Nome
The Nome City Manager was out of town, and City Clerk Bryant Hammond was the acting manager. He said on Wednesday, city officials started discussing how bad it shapes up to be and what needed to be done. The building inspector informed Front Street businesses to get prepared and make sure there are no unsecured propane or fuel tanks. By Friday, nearly every building on the southside of Front Street boarded up their windows. The city had no adequate supply of sandbags, but sealed off doors with plastic sheets and gravel of the low lying Mini Convention Center. In anticipation for the storm, Nome Schools had called a minimum day, sending students home early. Businesses closed early and scheduled events and NBHS volleyball games were canceled. Hammond said, as the storm progressed on Friday, fire chief Jim West, public works director Cole Cushman and he were periodically checking on the water levels. On Friday night, around 10:30 p.m. it became clear that he needed to stand up the Incident Command Center as the water overtopped the lower dock at the small boat harbor.
From there on the storm began its destruction. Hammond, at his desk on Monday pulled out a yellow legal pad and read from a detailed timeline: Just after midnight, F Street flooded, and the River Street pump station overheated. Front Street began to flood. “That was when the waves really started working at the asphalt, which would later be completely torn off like a banana peel,” said Hammond. Just after 3 a.m. Bering Air parking lot started flooding, the Mini was surrounded by water. At almost five o’clock, the waves measured at the buoy were up to 16 feet and would top out at 19 feet. About 5:30 a.m. the water height peaked. At 6:20 a.m. the power went out at the north feeder and was restored. About 6:30 a.m. the people living above the Polar Cub evacuated, the city sent a van to get them to the Rec Center. Six people were using the emergency shelter there.
At 8 a.m. just as Hammond was fielding a media call from Channel Two, they got cut off. At that time, the water surges to 9.5 feet and a container floats on Front Street. “This is also when the house came off at Belmont Point,” Hammond said.
Around 9 a.m. reports came in that the pavement was gone from East Front Street at the old Country Store. As the sun rose, people started to get out, taking and posting photos, including pictures of the floating house pinned under the Snake River bridge.
Around 10 a.m. the city got calls from organizations offering help. Around 11 o’clock, as the eye of the storm was at Little Diomede, Hammond first hear reports that subsistence camp sites at Fort Davis were decimated. The exact number is not known yet, but surveying the damage on Sunday, Josie Bourdon said there were at least five cabins gone, swept off. Standing on the shore of the Nome River northern bank, she surveyed a line of driftwood, coolers, lumber, buckets, and belongings that once lived in those subsistence camps. Bourdon pointed to one pink cabinet laying on its side amidst the rubble. It looks familiar, she said, it belonged into the Koweluk camp. A small cabin sitting also on the opposite side of Fort Davis at first glance does not look out of place. Except, Bourdon said, it’s Fred Larsen’s camp and it got washed from Fort Davis.
Hammond reported that 15 people were taking advantage of NEST opening up.
Around noon time, a fuel tank at the east end of Front Street broke loose and was then secured. The city continued to send out public safety advisories as roads were closed and people asked to stay away. But those advisories seemed to have the opposite effect. “I almost think that our PSAs turned out to be less safety announcements but became tour guides.” As people read which streets were flooded, that’s where they went to take photos.
“Friday night seemed to be a party to people,” Hammond said. “Everybody was like ‘Hey, let’s go see what’s happening.’ We had people on the Seawall, despite repeated PSAs to stay away because a powerful surge is washing up 100-pound rocks and the last thing we wanted is somebody to get hit with some of those things.” Throughout the day, barricades went up and were mostly ignored. Finally, NPD parked a patrol car up at Center Creek Road, lights flashing, to keep people from driving down to Seppala Drive. As things calmed down, Hammond noted an outpouring of help offers and by Sunday afternoon, the DOT was already starting to cleanup roadways. As reports came in that the floating house was falling apart, Shawn Pomrenke offered to demolish the house as it was pinned against the shoreline and haul off the wreckage debris with a dump truck. Hammond said, as they talked about prioritizing cleanup activities, he smelled something burning, like an electrical fire. He started to look around the Public Safety Building for the source and when he walked into the dispatch center, he saw on one of the cameras the fire at the Bering Sea. While city officials had been on a text thread throughout the storm to report what’s going on, all texting stopped suddenly as city officials concentrated on containing the fire and communication went on by radio. Power went out as a standard procedure as NVFD rushed to respond to the fire. Three patients were transported to Norton Sound, treated and released. Norton Sound stood up their emergency medical plan and called in extra staff. “Because at that point we still didn’t know if people were in there,” said Hammond. Doug and Robin Johnson were the first at the scene, Hammond said. “They ran in and they were pounding on doors getting people out of the Nugget Inn [Hotel].”
With all NVFD volunteers busy at the Bering Sea Restaurant fire, Hammond said eyes tearing up a little bit, that older, retired volunteer firefighters showed up in the bunker gear, ready to help. “That was really heart warming to see, they’re not part of the department anymore, but they were right there.”
Hours later, another call came in of a possible fire by the old Country Store. This fire call was a false alarm.
During all of this AT&T was having power issues at their Front Street Station and the FirstNet system which is supposed to have priority access to communications went down. GCI was functional.
As the Bering Sea fire was controlled and floodwaters continued to recede Saturday into Sunday, the Incident Command Center was still stood up, but officials could go home for some rest that night. On early Sunday morning, Hammond drove around to “get eyes on everything” and went to the ICC to confer with Charlie Lean on the next priorities. “We started to transfer into recovery scenarios,” he said. Then the calls began. Crowley, Bonanza what’s the damage? Only minor damage to buildings. Bering Air? The hangar is safe and flights resumed. Also, Alaska Airlines resumed flights to Nome. DOT and city crews coordinated work on the roads to restore access, removing rocks and debris from the streets and starting to work on fixing an entire missing section of the Nome-Council highway, just east of the intersection to Greg Kruschek Avenue.
As access was restored, people got into their cars to check on their camps or survey the damage.
Jon and Sierra Smith live on River Street, just kitty corner from the Mini Convention Center. As Jon was cleaning up debris from around his home he said he got lucky. “Friday night, about 11:30 were the first biggest waves hitting the seawall right here, right behind the Mini Convention Center. The water level rose so much it was coming through the storm drains and flooding the street.” The Smiths decided to leave their home around 12:30 a.m. and sought shelter with friends in Icy View. “River Street literally was a river,” he said. A surveillance camera at their door allowed them to monitor the storm as it battered their home, but the water stopped rising before it flooded their house. “The surge took out all the skirting under the house and the water level rose just under our deck by about two steps,” Smith said. The surge also broke the propane line and busted loose the propane tank. The trash cans stood by the house as if nothing had happened. “There’s a little damage on the roofing maybe some on the windows a little warping but, yeah, we’re pretty fortunate compared to all the other homes out in our region,” said Smith.
He said he’s considering raising up the house a little bit more. “Definitely, after this one that be nice because, yeah, that was kind of scary.”
Asked about the climate change drive sea level rises, Rick Thoman explained that sea level rise comes from both glacier and ice sheet melt and the thermal expansion of the ocean water itself as it warms. “If you wanted to have a building so it would be above the November 1974, 12 ft water level which was 18 inches above this storm, I would add a foot at least to that to cover just for sea level rise. Of course, if a storm comes along with a 15 ft surge, then all bets are off.”