A powerful storm sweeping north through the Bering Strait on Saturday caused widespread flooding in several coastal communities in western Alaska, knocking out power and forcing residents to flee to higher ground.
The force of the water moved some houses off their foundations and a house in Nome floated down a river until it got stuck on a bridge.
The powerful storm – remnant of Typhoon Merbok – influenced weather patterns as far away as California, where high winds and a rare late summer rainstorm were expected.
In Alaska, no injuries or deaths were immediately reported, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Officials had warned that some places could experience their worst flooding in 50 years and the high waters could take up to 14 hours to recede.
Governor Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration during the day.
The nearly 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) storm front damaged roads and potentially other infrastructure, Dunleavy said at a Saturday night news conference. Officials will assess any effects on water and sewer systems, levees, fuel storage areas, airports and ports.
Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were already in Alaska before the storm hit, and Dunleavy said they would stay to help assess the damage.
“Our goal is to do the assessments as soon as possible,” he said. “We are going to act as quickly as possible to provide relief, to ensure recovery, to provide the essentials that people need.”
Among the hardest-hit communities is Golovin, a village of about 170 residents who have mostly sought shelter in a school or three hillside buildings. Winds in the village blew over 60mph (95kph) and the water rose 11ft (3.3m) above the normal high tide line and is expected to rise further 2 feet (60 centimeters) Saturday before peaking.
“Most of the lower part of the community is completely awash with flooded structures and buildings,” said Ed Plumb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
Clarabelle Lewis, facilities manager for the tribal government, Chinik Eskimo Community, was among those who sought refuge on the hill overlooking Golovin. She and others were weathering the storm in the tribal office after securing items in their homes from high winds and helping neighbors do the same.
“The winds howled; it was loud,” she said.
Most communities experienced wind gusts ranging from 41 mph (66 kph) to 67 mph (108 kph), but Cape Romanzof experienced peak winds of 91 mph (146 kph), the weather service said.
Lewis has never experienced such a storm in 20 years at Golovin.
“We’ve had flooding in the past, but it’s never been this bad,” she said. “We have never had houses moved from their foundations.”
Flooding was also reported in Hooper Bay, St. Michael’s, Unalakleet and Shaktoolik, where waves crashed over the berm in front of the community, Plumb said.
In Hooper Bay, more than 250 people took shelter inside the school, public radio station Bethel KYUK reported. The village is one of the largest on the coast with almost 1,400 inhabitants.
The school’s deputy principal, Brittany Taraba, said three houses were knocked down and large parts of the village were flooded.
Residents support each other, including donating recently captured 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 cross the Bering Strait on Saturday and then track into the Chukchi Sea.
“And then it’ll kind of park up and get weaker just west of Point Hope,” he said of the community on Alaska’s northwest coast.
He said there would be high water near the northern Bering Sea until Saturday evening before levels began to drop until Sunday. Rising water levels further north in the Chukchi Sea and Kotzebue Strait regions were expected through Sunday.
In northern California, wind gusts of up to 40 mph (64 km/h) were forecast overnight Saturday through Sunday morning along coastal areas from Sonoma County to Santa Cruz and at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada, the weather service said.
Such strong winds can knock down branches and drought-stressed trees and cause power outages, said Weather Services meteorologist Ryan Walbrun.
The storms were expected to begin Sunday morning and dump up to 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of rain in coastal areas of Sonoma County and slightly less as the rains move south toward the San Francisco area and into the Santa Cruz Mountains, Walbrun said.
“It’s pretty heavy rain for this start to the season,” he said, adding that the storms are expected to continue intermittently through at least Monday, making commutes to work wet with slippery roads.
In the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of the state capital, Sacramento, fire crews battled what became the state’s largest wildfire so far this year. While rain is needed, winds were a concern for crews battling the Mosquito Fire, which was 21% contained Saturday morning.
“The winds will certainly cause erratic fire behavior” that could ignite new hot spots despite the welcome humidity, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said. “The rain won’t put out the fire but it will help.”
Gecker reported from San Francisco.
This story was originally published September 17, 2022 6:28 p.m.