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Storm In Alaska Brings Snow, Strong Winds, Ice Surges

More than 225 people spent Wednesday night in shelters in Alaska where a dangerous winter storm brought blizzard conditions, strong winds, surging sea ice and flooding to the west coast. The American Red Cross of Alaska is monitoring the storm closely and keeping in touch with the affected communities, ready to provide additional assistance if needed.

“We are keeping in touch with the affected communities by phone,” reported Michele Houlihan, chief executive officer, American Red Cross of Alaska. “Many of these villages are not on a road system. They are accessible only by plane or boat. But they are very self-sufficient, very resilient. Most residents are choosing to shelter in place.”

In Nome, water broke over the sea wall and winds gusting as high as 93 mph tore roofs off buildings. Water and sea ice pushed onshore in some areas, surrounding homes and disrupting air travel. Drifting snow buried roads and communication with some areas is intermittent where winds blew antennas down. Conditions should start to improve today.

Disaster response in Alaska requires complicated planning by state and local governments, as well as the Red Cross. Half the state’s inhabitants are spread across a land mass more than twice the size of Texas, and many live in areas accessible only by water or air. Because of the vast geography, communities often have to rely on the telephone and computer for various necessities such as medical help. Communities throughout the area have been informed that the Red Cross is available remotely for coaching people through mental health services, sheltering and mass care.

Satellite image of epic Alaskan storm.

Relief supplies often have to be delivered to communities by plane, limiting the number of disaster responders who can be brought in from other areas. Responses can occur in subzero conditions, requiring that people and equipment be prepared for the freezing temperatures. Disaster workers from outside the area need the proper gear to respond. The bitter cold environment can quickly cause a person who is there to help to become a casualty if not prepared.

Red Cross partners like ERA Aviation are standing by, ready to assist with the disaster response. Statewide across Alaska, ERA Aviation supports Red Cross disaster response, helping deliver disaster supplies and volunteers.

The Red Cross has been working with outlying communities, training residents in disaster response to assist their neighbors when emergencies occur such as the winter storm currently wreaking havoc in the area. Many residents live a subsistence life style where they utilize traditional foods such as game and water fowl as a primary food source. The Red Cross has worked with state and local officials to come up with community-based solutions to ensure people are receiving food that works best for their needs. Additionally, communities often request food for their sled dogs to be in the first delivery of relief supplies. Dogs can equate to livelihoods and are a priority for rural communities.

“We are focusing on what’s right for the communities,” Houlihan said. “One of the biggest worries with this storm is a catastrophic ice flow, but it’s still too early to tell. We’ll be ready with additional assistance after the storm is over.”