Autumn storm batters northern coastline
Cleanup and recovery from the recent storm that battered the North Slope coastline may carry a price tag exceeding $10 million, borough officials say, following an assessment of the damage to beaches, roads and other infrastructure.
"Utqiaġvik sustained severe losses and threats to property and life due to wind and high surf storm surges over the course of several days," noted a storm statistics sheet provided by Kenneth Robbins, advisor to the North Slope Borough Mayor.
Sustained west winds in excess of 30 mph, combined with wind gusts of more than 45 mph, washed water and sand over access ways and transformed roads into beaches.
The town saw waves and surf of 8 feet or greater, which damaged the fragile coastline and carved out fingers of beach near critical infrastructure.
"We had a major storm surge way back in the 1960s, I have heard, and it was very devastating," said local resident Robin Mongoyak. "I'm afraid lives will be lost and homes will be destroyed if there is nothing serious done [to prevent it happening again]."
A handful of Utqiaġvik's roads were damaged or completely destroyed by this storm, which began Sept. 28 and continued for several days.
"The beach road from the Point Barrow Airstrip and Elson Lagoon, approximately 3,700 feet, is completely destroyed, separating the community from an important subsistence area," the borough noted. "Whaling in the community, a critical subsistence activity, commenced shortly after the storm subsided and access to Elson Lagoon is very important for landing whales if wave action on the coast presents an unsafe situation."
Pictures taken by people who have braved the conditions to get a better look at the damage show beach debris covering what used to be a graveled and graded path. Road signs spring up from the sand and pools of water, seemingly out of place, but in actuality, marking what used to be there.
According to the borough, Stevens Street between Tahak and Ahmaogak Avenue was covered in water. The approximately 3,000 feet of road was "severely eroded from storm surge wave action and portions remain closed." Additionally, a 200-foot section of Egasuk Street was also washed away, along with 60 feet of guardrail. Stevens Street was also compromised between Agvik Street and Eben Hopson Street. That portion remains closed, as well, due to erosion and water damage.
Other critical infrastructure was also damaged or put at serious risk by forceful flooding and surge.
As happened during a powerful storm that wreaked havoc on the community in 2015, Utqiaġvik's freshwater source was nearly compromised. Both the lower and middle lagoons below the freshwater lagoon were flooded. As the lagoons are all connected, rising water levels in the brackish lagoons can lead to backflow toward the freshwater lagoon.
"Responders plugged freshwater outfall culverts to prevent saltwater contamination of the freshwater lake," the borough explained.
In addition, 22 lots on both "Barrowside" and in Browerville were flooded during the storm and remained submerged as of Tuesday afternoon.
The flooding was in part caused by a failure of more than three miles of protective berms that run the length of the coastline. The berms were breached or "severely eroded" in several areas along that 3-mile stretch, allowing overspill of seawater.
The borough noted it had purchased 15,000 cubic yards of gravel for berm repairs, which were about 80 percent complete by Tuesday afternoon.
Part of the retaining wall system that runs below Egasuk Street was also weakened by the storm. It's the first damage the wall has sustained in a decade, borough officials said.
It's a 600-foot Gabion basket wall, which is basically backfill material supported by sturdy exterior mesh. The borough noted several of the "baskets" were "emptied" by waves and the full extent of damage is not yet known. However, because of how the system supports itself along the entire length, "Now the entire structure is vulnerable," the borough stated.
About 1,200 feet of super sacks — giant one- and two-ton sandbags — between Egasuk Street and Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative's Pump Station 4, sustained heavy damage and must be replaced, as well.
Finally, serious and swift erosion has taken its toll on the ground beneath portions of town. The future of those compromised sections is now uncertain.
"Seven historical town site lots on a bluff below Apayauk and Stevens Street have been undercut by storm surge wave action and the top of the bluff along its entire length is unstable and beginning to collapse," the borough noted. "It is estimated that the top of the bluff may recede as much as 10 feet after the supporting soil thaws."
This level of erosion is not uncommon after storms of this magnitude. Parts of the North Slope coastline have lost more than 60 feet over the last several years due to increasingly damaging fall storms.
"Not every year it's like this, but it still gets stormy. But, when it comes, we are only [temporarily] ready," said resident Mongoyak. "This is suppose to be the time of year the lakes and ponds freeze and our ocean was supposed to be covered with multi-year ice and freezing to make it anchor along our shores to block the strong winds and waves from penetrating onto our coastlines. [The] only difference is warmer winds and no ice."
The loss of protective sea ice means storms barrage the land itself and now carve out swaths of it as they progress. The inundation of warmer water on the permafrost also encourages thaw, making coastal areas even more prone to erosion down the line.
Last year, North Slope Borough officials met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revitalize discussions of building a seawall to protect the hub community from these disastrous fall storms.
"[Utqiaġvik] is just one storm away from a major catastrophe," said former borough official John Boyle, speaking to the Sounder last February. "Not only could it have catastrophic impacts on the community of [Utqiaġvik] itself, it could also have impacts on the rest of the North Slope communities that rely on [Utqiaġvik] as a hub."
Those conversations are ongoing, though no decisions on precisely how to proceed have been made yet. This is the most damaging storm to hit since the big one two years ago and now residents know it's a question of when, not if, that catastrophic storm will hit.
Out on the road to the old air strip, cabins that once sat 60 feet or more from the waterline now have waves lapping at their doorsteps. The freshwater lagoon has come within inches of contamination not once, but twice. The supports are failing and the bills to fix them are rising.
Looking out at the ever-narrowing distance between their community and the encroaching sea, residents are becoming increasingly uncertain about what the future of these storms will mean for them and the place they call home.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.