New Year's storm pummels Bering Strait, St. Lawrence Island
A series of low pressure systems swept through western and northwestern Alaska beginning December 28 until things calmed down on January 2, leaving sections of villages without power and communication lines, some homes damaged and runway lights knocked out.
As of this writing on January 3, the picture of damage is still incomplete and not all communities could be reached by phone.
St. Lawrence Island seemed to have been hit the hardest with high winds that hammered the island. According to Gambell resident Debbie Apatiki, there is no sea ice in front of Gambell and stormy seas and big waves crashed across the community’s runway, taking out the airport lights. She estimates the winds were howling at 60 to 70 mph. Damage also occurred to boat racks. In coordination with the State Emergency Operations Center, the community was prepared and opened the school as a shelter. It is unknown how many people sought shelter there during the peak of the storm on New Year’s Eve and into New Year’s Day. Apatiki said the upside was that after the storm, they found nice big clams washed up on shore. In a short phone conversation with Orlin Booshu after the storm, he reported that phone lines went temporarily down, but he said there were no lasting power outages in Gambell.
Russell Rowe with Bering Air said that during the height of the storm from Friday to Sunday, Bering Air did very few flights anywhere and did no flights to St. Lawrence Island or Wales during this three-day period. They also did not fly to Wales on Monday, but resumed flight service on Tuesday afternoon.
“All in all we canceled around 20 flights to Wales and St. Lawrence combined along with many other flights that were canceled to other destinations,” he said.
Flights to St. Lawrence Island take place during daytime and other destinations as scheduled once the fog lifts in Nome.
According to Jeremy Zidek with the State of Alaska Dept. of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 117 people sheltered overnight in Savoonga at the school on Dec. 31. The next day, 40 to 50 people were still in the shelter.
According to preliminary reports, Zidek said high winds damaged at least 30 homes in Savoonga, knocking out a wall to one home and damaging several roofs. Five homes are still without power, as of Tuesday, Jan. 3, and some homes are only on half-power.
On Tuesday, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative has sent two linemen to Savoonga to fix the power.
Zidek reports that Gambell phone lines were down, but Savoonga phones were functional. Savoonga communicated with Gambell and relayed the information to the state emergency officials. “We spoke with the Mayor of Savoonga, and he did not relay any reports of trouble in Gambell to us,” Zidek said.
“As of now, the extent of damages is unclear,” said Zidek on Monday. “We have reports of damages to homes and public infrastructure coming in from all over the Seward Peninsula and St. Lawrence Island and it will take a few days for the whole picture to develop.” He said that most damage probably occurred in Savoonga.
Golovin reported damage to their police station; Kotzebue reported roof and other building damages; Shishmaref reported the loss of one boat. In Shaktoolik, Zidek said, they hired four people to watch the water level overnight, but the feared flooding did not occur. He said there were no reports of deaths of injuries due to the storm.
As of Tuesday, there was little communication with Wales.
The Nugget could not reach any working phone number in Wales. Zidek had no information on the community, either as of press time on Tuesday. Phone lines seemed to be down. According to AVEC’s Amy Murphy, one section of the town is out of power. Russ Rowe with Bering Air said due to the lack of weather reports from Wales, no planes are currently going to Wales until the weather station is up and running again.
AVEC also reports power outages to two homes in St. Michael and one home in Brevig Mission. They have not heard from Teller.
City Clerk Bryant Hammond said there were no damages reported from Nome.
In Nome, National Weather Service meteorological technician Chris Clarke described the multi-day weather event as a series of storms. A general, stationary low pressure system in the Bering Sea set the stage for numerous low pressure systems to follow. The weather pattern began to shift around December 21 with more easterly winds and snowfall. Around December 28 the most significant change in temperature occurred when temperatures shot up from minus 13°F on Dec. 28 around noon to 34°F on 10:37 a.m. the next day. Clarke reports peak winds gusting in Nome at 53 mph at 3 a.m. on Dec. 29.
“This was the major front that pushed through and it packed the most punch,” he said. Temperatures since Dec. 29 until January 2 hovered over the freezing mark: Dec. 30 saw a high of 34°F and a low of 24°F with winds gusting to 55 mph; Dec. 31 saw a high of 35°F and a low at 26°F with peak winds at 46 mph. January 1 saw a high of 34°F and a low of 30°F with winds topping out at 39 mph. Precipitation fell mostly as wet and sideways blowing snow mixed with rain at times.
As of press time, snowfall for the season measures 26.7 inches, six inches below the “normal” of 32.7 inches.
Winds between 45 mph and 65 mph ravaged Savoonga, with gust hitting 70 mph on Dec. 31 around 5:30 p.m.
Due to the lack of a NOAA weather station on St. Lawrence Island, no exact data of winds and temperatures could be retrieved through the Nation Weather Service.