Communities along Alaska’s western coast faced widespread flooding Saturday as a powerful storm, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok, roared across the Bering Sea, with wind gusts tearing the siding off buildings and a storm surge pulling homes from their foundations.
The impact was felt across hundreds of miles of coastline as the storm raked the state from south to north.
In Nome, raging waters pushed into six of the city’s streets, including part of Front Street, near where mushers finish the Iditarod sled dog race. In Chevak, about 200 miles (333km) south, images showed sheds floating in tumbling waves next to sunken boats.
In Golovin, about 70 miles east of Nome, Dean Peterson said water had jumped the 20-foot (6m) berm that protects the community of 170 people, rushing through the lower-lying areas, pulling three homes from their foundations and destroying another.
“The school is completely surrounded by water,” Peterson said. He said he did not know of any injuries.
John Handeland, the mayor of Nome, said Saturday afternoon that there were no reports of injuries in his community but that the storm surge had flooded several roads, pushing driftwood and debris into town. An unoccupied home was taken by the waters, and one waterfront road was at least partially washed away.
“It will be a few days before we can totally analyze the level of destruction,” he said.
On Saturday morning, water levels were 7 to 9 feet (2m to 2.7m) above normal in Nome, where the population is less than 10,000, according to the National Ocean Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Coastal flood warnings in some areas remained in effect through Sunday morning, National Weather Service officials in Alaska said. In the Koyuk area, about 130 miles east of Nome, water levels could still reach 12 to 18 feet above normal tide lines, they said.
Forecasters said the storm’s size and strength made it one of the most powerful systems to move through the Bering Sea area in decades, with waves north of the Aleutian Islands peaking at 50 feet Friday. Many communities experienced wind gusts that were close to hurricane strength.
Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist based in Anchorage, said sea surface temperatures recorded along Alaska’s western coast were at or near record highs.
“We can say that climate change will increase the likelihood that all these ingredients are in place at the same time,” he said, “and it’s not unreasonable to assume these types of storms will become more frequent.”
Emergency responders from local, state, federal and tribal agencies were assessing the situation and preparing to deploy. The region includes many communities with small populations, a few hundred people or less, and that are not connected by roads, making a broad response challenging.
Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said Saturday that the agency had not yet received any emergency requests or reports of deaths or injuries.
“People had a lot of warning, and they took a lot of precautionary measures,” he said.
But Zidek said the scope of the damage from the flooding would not be known Saturday.
“It normally takes a day or two before communities can get out and do a thorough assessment,” he said. “Sometimes it’s apparent or it looks minor and turns out to be more severe.”