Nome woman still missing, friends organize searches
After more than a week of having been reported missing, Florence Okpealuk, 33 years old, has still not been found.
On August 31, the Nome Police Department posted on Facebook that NPD is looking to locate Florence Okpealuk after family has reported her missing that day. They gave a description of her being 5’2”, about 130 lbs and that she was last seen on August 31 on West Beach, approximately 1 to 2 miles from town. A missing person bulletin issued by the Alaska State Troopers on September 1 added that she was last seen coming out of a tent on West Beach.
Nome Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim West Jr. said NPD requested help from NVFD Search and Rescue volunteers. “We’ve been actively looking last week,” said West Jr. Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Aileen Witrosky said NPD requested the trooper’s help as well. “We assisted with air support and flew along the coast to the Cripple River in the west and to the Beam Road in the east,” said Sgt. Witrosky. On Wednesday, AST asked assistance from the Coast Guard and they responded with a helicopter flight up and down the coast that day.
On the ground, Nome SAR covered West Beach, checked out leads on mile 22 of the Nome-Council Highway and used their underwater camera on a Remotely Operated Vehicle in one of the lakes near West Beach. A scent-trained dog owned by a local couple was used to sniff out a certain area where suspicious footprints were found in the tundra. Finally, NVFD requested help from Kawerak and Norton Sound Health Corporation. On Friday, NPD announced a coordinated community search and asked volunteers to gather at Fire Hall for a search on the tundra above West Beach on Saturday. West Jr. said about 100 volunteers showed up to assist in the search. The volunteers were instructed to form a daisy chain and walked the tundra starting at the water treatment lagoon past the NJUS fuel tanks westward.
Nothing was found.
“We’re running out of ideas where to go,” West said. With hunting season in full swing, agencies are short staffed to bring in more volunteers to help.
However, the fact that a community wide search was not started until day 6 after Okpealuk’s disappearance, ripped open not- so-old wounds as a familiar allegation surfaces: A Native person goes missing or is in distress and local law enforcement stands accused of a lackluster response.
“A lot of people feel that NPD is absent,” said Billi Jean Miller, who coordinated with a group of other women to organize searches for their friend Flo the day she went missing. She said that Katie Hannon started a message group on Facebook, first only five but then more women and men gathered and spread the word. On Monday, Billi Miller began looking for her friend at East End Park. “Within that day we covered East End Park to West Beach. We took pictures of all the clothing items, anything that looked suspicious, we started checking looking in public dumpsters, abandoned houses and abandoned cars,” she said.
Florence and her go way back, when both attended Teller Highschool, Miller as a freshman and Okpealuk as a senior. They played baskeball together and became confidants. Miller described Okpealuk as “known to give off good energy and she’s never done anything bad.”
Now, on day 9 of Florence’s disappearance, nerves are frazzled, as sleep has been short and stress is mounting. But the group is still looking in different places for Okpealuk. The group has grown and support is given in many ways. “We have a huge group of women and volunteers coming forth, people offering to babysit, while sometimes 20 people are searching at a time,” said Miller. Ivis Hobel pledged her birthday fundraiser to the search for Okpealuk and as of Tuesday, there have been nearly $5,000 raised. “We had people bringing out soup, water, drinks, coffee to our resting places while we search,” said Miller. Even Teller SAR came to help.
When Carol Seppilu and Miller were driving up and down west beach on Thursday they came across four NVFD SAR volunteers. Two of them said that they do see and appreciate their Facebook posts and that they follow them.
“But there is no communication coming back,” said Miller.
“We are requesting more help,” Miller said. “We need more resources coming in for Flo because there is not enough official help. One front line community sweep on day 6 was not enough. The fact that we take it into our own hands coordinating, providing equipment, money, resources that we can all gather and help find Flo. It’s amazing we see that process, but we are all paralyzed with the thought that nothing more is happening beyond that. We had one sweep and we feel that we need more people to come in from outside to help us while it is still a Search and Rescue because we are not getting the help here in our own community.”
The Nugget repeatedly reached out to receive an update but was unable to interview Deputy Chief Robert Pruckner by deadline. Dispatch responded that that the investigation is ongoing.