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Bering Strait communities resume air service, plan to fly in drinking water after massive storm

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Alaska DOT&PF
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As water levels receded Sunday, residents in the Bering Strait region began taking stock of the damage done by the strongest fall storm to hit Western Alaska in 50 years. Sea berms were destroyed, homes were flooded or knocked off their foundations, and drinking water sources were contaminated.

In the community of Teller, the forecast from the National Weather Service had predicted all 230-plus residents would have their homes completely flooded during the storm. But Mayor Blanche Okbaok-Garnie says the community was prepared and a little bit lucky.

“We lost parts of our seawall. We lost quite a bit of the rocks and gradians that hold up the seawall and then we lost some of the planks, treated planks,” Okbaok-Garnie said..”But for the most part…the homes were dry. Some of the water went up and around some of the homes and boats.”

Teller did still experience rising water levels from the three surrounding water sources, and some subsequent erosion. But Garnie says the damage was not nearly as bad as predicted.

In Shaktoolik, which lost its protective berm during the storm, resident Gloria Andrew said Sunday she and other residents who sheltered at the local school overnight Saturday have since returned home. Many residents were out and about Sunday collecting excess wood.

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Gloria Andrew
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The storm destroyed Shaktoolik’s berm, all that stands between the village and the salt-water waves.

Across the Norton Sound in Unalakleet, residents were evacuated Saturday afternoon to the local school until the notice was lifted Sunday morning. Despite having high water and debris on the airport ramp, the local airport was operational Sunday.

The city office also reported a complete water pressure loss during the storm, along with power outages, which has led to a boil water notice and conserving of water until the city can reach their pump house.

There could be some temporary relief coming to Unalakleet and several other communities in the Norton Sound that are without potable water.

Nome Mayor John Handeland said during Sunday’s city emergency operations meeting that Northern Air Cargo, other freight carriers and the Alaska National Guard would be delivering bottled water and supplies to communities without drinking water.

“NAC does have a couple freighters that are scheduled to come our way,” Handeland said. “Their first load, sounds like it’s going to be bottled water that needs to get out into communities around our area. The biggest concern that I mentioned to the governor and (Alaska National Guard Adjutant) General (Torrence) Saxe is probably the food supply and getting the bypass mail, and cargo going.”

In spite of rising water levels threatening the Nome airstrip over the weekend, there was no standing water on the runway or significant damage so flights resumed Sunday.

Throughout the Nome area, water levels rose to about nine feet above the normal high-tide line during the storm. That’s according to Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

“We can say for sure, this was the highest storm surge for Nome since the great November 1974 storm,” Thoman said. “This was about eight inches higher than the Bering Sea superstorm in 2011.”

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Alaska DOT&PF
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A floating home rests against Nome’s Snake River bridge on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

With those rising water levels on Saturday, a house from Belmont Point was swept into the Snake River and trapped under the bridge.

City officials enlisted help from gold miner Sean Pomrenke to remove the house in sections and haul away the debris Sunday as one of their recovery tasks.

The city’s other priorities include assisting the seven local residents who evacuated from their homes. Currently they are staying at the Nome Recreation Center, which was set up as the emergency shelter during the storm. That shelter is likely to be operational for the next few days.

Locally the cleanup process has already begun, with the State Department of Transportation coordinating to make Nome’s roads passable again. Calvin Schaeffer, DOT’s regional superintendent for the Western District, says the agency will be assessing the damage to Nome-Council Road which was significantly eroded in certain sections on the east end of town.

“We’re trying to get a grader out toward the Cape [Nome] and then beyond that, assess damages and maybe take an engineer with him,” Schaeffer said. “Then we’re going to go from there and basically see what we can do to open it back up, and do what we can before winter.”

The Nome City Council is scheduled to meet at noon Monday to make a formal disaster proclamation for the storm.

Alaska Public Media reporter Wesley Early contributed information to this story.