This house in Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island, lost one entire wall in the recent winter storms that pummeled the western coastline. - courtesy of the city of Savoonga via the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

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Savoonga storm draws experts

January 13th | Lisa Demer, Alaska Dispatch News Print this article   Email this article  

From the safety of his home, Delbert Pungowiyi watched winter storms blow into his home village of Savoonga last week, ripping off roofs, damaging interiors with rain and sending some number of people to huddle with relatives or in the school gym.

Now outsiders are heading to St. Lawrence Island, one of the most remote places in Alaska, to assess the damage and better understand the storms.

Savoonga, on the northern coast of the Bering Sea island, was Alaska's hardest hit inhabited spot in a series of three northern Alaska storms that began the night of Dec. 28 and kept coming through New Year's Day, said Ed Plumb, a Fairbanks-based National Weather Service meteorologist whose specialty is warning coordination.

A dramatic storm surge — a significant rise in the sea level — was experienced along the Yukon Delta, up to Norton Sound and along the Chukchi Sea coast, Plumb said.

"Which is unusual to see when there is ice cover out over the ocean," he said. Around St. Lawrence Island, though, the area is free of sea ice, which is also unusual.

Strong southwest winds blew over an extended time breaking up ice and pushing sea water toward the coast, he said. In Kotzebue, the roof blew off the building that houses the post office.

Norton Sound residents told him they had never seen sea levels so high in winter. Ice that remained protected shorelines that have been eroding in fall storms.

He is traveling to St. Lawrence Island this weekend as part of a weather service program to establish stronger connections with communities and understand vulnerabilities in storms.

Gambell, on the island's south side, was hit hard too. It experienced storm surges that partially flooded the runway, according to reports to the state.

Two state emergency managers are heading to the island and plan to assess the damage in both Savoonga and Gambell. The state workers will help Savoonga's mayor draft a disaster declaration and assess the damage to see whether to recommend state and federal disaster declarations, which bring aid to help in rebuilding, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state emergency management division.

Gambell hasn't yet asked for disaster relief. The runway is paved and durable but if needed the state will pay for any runway repairs, Zidek said.

Two staff members with the American Red Cross are going to St. Lawrence Island too. Red Cross also plans to assess the damage, as well as see what people need, the agency said.

Damage from storms isn't always immediately apparent, Zidek said.

Pungowiyi, Savoonga's tribal president, has spent most of his 57 years in the village. This storm is the biggest he remembers in terms of damage, he said.

"This year the climate change is announcing itself very powerfully," he said. So far, the sea around the island is ice free, and that may be the case all winter, which he said would be a first.

During the storm, wind gusts at the Savoonga airport were measured at 80 mph, according to the weather service.

The wind blew harder than that, picking up speed as it howled off Atuk Mountain bordering the village, Pungowiyi said. At the power plant, which gets some of its energy from wind turbines, gusts were measured at 130 mph, he said. The turbines shut themselves down in high wind situations like that, said Meera Kohler, chief executive of Alaska Village Electric Cooperative. She couldn't immediately confirm the wind speed because the staff member who tracks that was gone for the day Thursday afternoon.

The cooperative sent two technicians to the village for storm repairs but the issues were fairly minor and AVEC customers on the island didn't face any major outages, she said.

As the worst of the storm hit, windows blew out, roofs were torn off and the house across from Pungowiyi "looked like it was blowing up" as the whole side was ripped off, he said. The father of the man who lived there collected him earlier in the storm, so no one was hurt.

"The house that tore up right across from me, I watched it coming apart," Pungowiyi said.

Plywood and debris were flying everywhere. A big window broke in a neighbor's home and some men worked through the storm to put up plywood and protect things. He put duct tape on a window in his own house and it bowed but didn't break.

Thawing permafrost is causing infrastructure in town to shift, including the connections between houses and the utilidor pipe system for water and sewage, Pungowiyi said. Rain came inside from holes torn into homes as a result of the settling, he said. He sopped it into a coffee can.

He remembers sitting with his grandfather in 1983. His grandfather warned that things were changing and predicted "storms of a magnitude that man has not known."

They need to learn to protect themselves from these new weather extremes, Pungowiyi said.

Before the storms hit, communities were warned during state teleconferences.

The damage assessments will help everyone understand more of the impacts and vulnerabilities, say those involved.

This story first appeared in Alaska Dispatch News and is reprinted here with permission.

 

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