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Winter Storm Batters West Alaska Coast

One of the worst Bering Sea storms on record is slamming into the west Alaska coast today, and experts are warning people that conditions are extremely dangerous. American Red Cross of Alaska disaster workers are monitoring the storm closely with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and various state agencies, as well as officials from individual Alaskan villages.

Winds are gusting as high as 85 mph, and visibility is down to almost nothing, with almost two feet of snow causing major drifting. Coastal flooding and severe erosion are expected as the sea rises as much as ten feet above normal. Power outages are being reported by HAM radio operators, who are also describing how water is already flooding homes in some villages. The strong winds have blown off roofs and downed power and telephone lines.

Of particular concern during this storm are residents in villages throughout the region. Some villages sit on peninsulas with the Arctic Ocean on one side and Bering Sea on the other, with no sea walls or evacuation roads.

“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.”

The community of Kivalina is evacuating some residents to the nearby Red Dog mine. The village is situated on a sand bar and is expected to see extremely high seas and erosion as the storm progresses. Koyuk has already seen over a foot of ice buildup off-shore. The concern is that the high winds and rising seas will flush the ice on shore into the village. In previous storms, the ice has formed shelves which have caused severe damage to homes on impact.

NOAA Satellite image of massive Alaskan storm.

Community Center employees in Nome, trained by the Red Cross in disaster response, have opened a shelter in the area. The Red Cross is ready to respond with additional assistance if needed once the storm has passed.

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.

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.”