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Shishmaref residents escaped Bering Sea storm's wrath

Jill Burke,Alex DeMarban

Villagers in the Bering Sea community of Shishmaref woke up Thursday sensing that the worst was over and they'd been spared full force of the mega storm that walloped Western Alaska this week.

"We survived," said Curtis Nayokpuk, a member of the island's search-and-rescue team reached Thursday morning by phone at a city office.

Water driven by a storm surge peaked at 2 or 3 Thursday morning. By 10 a.m., tides seemed normal and the seas calm. Nayokpuk said the scramble for residents as the ominous storm approached was worthwhile. "We're kind of looking at it as an exercise and we all know we have problems we need to fix for next time."

High winds overnight Tuesday appear to have been more of a problem than the water surge. A boat flipped over, roofs and building skirting blew off. But otherwise things seem OK, Nayokpuk said before dawn Thursday, about a day and a half after the storm first hit. Daylight may tell another story, but Nayokpuk wasn't expecting any major surprises.

Shishmaref has long battled significant erosion, with waves from the Bering Sea relentlessly nibbling, sometimes in gulps, sections of beach. A sea wall reinforced in recent years appears to have withstood the storm, but the project is incomplete, leaving residents fretting about exposure on the west side of the project. Unlike in years past, buildings aren't at risk of toppling into the ocean, Nayokpuk said. Everything important has been relocated, and most of what's exposed are villagers' hunting camps.

In hunkering down to withstand the storm, the village realized it had a few "kinks" in its preparedness plan. Some hadn't bothered to get their homes stocked with water, food, candles and other supplies -- basic items any family would need to ride out bad weather. Because village leaders didn't feel the weather was bad enough to order evacuations, they asked everyone to "shelter in place" at their homes.

"If it was a real danger we would have evacuated to the shelter or church," Nayokpuk said. "We try to tell them they have to take care of themselves sometimes."

Flood warnings mostly canceled for Western Alaska

The National Weather Service reported mid-day Thursday that the mega storm had mostly dissipated. Coastal flood warnings for much of the region had been canceled by noon, but remained in effect for the Nome and lower Yukon River regions.

"The primary threat is now over, but water levels are still high," said meteorologist Don Moore.

Flood warnings for the Yukon Delta, including communities such as Scammon Bay and St. Mary's, weren't scheduled to end until 3 p.m. Thursday, Moore said. Flood warnings for Nome and communities for the southern Seward Peninsula and the eastern side of Norton Sound won't end until 6 p.m.

Generally, winds in those regions have diminished to between 20-40 mph, but waters are starting to rise again. The increase in water levels is expected to be at least 5 feet smaller than what was seen on Wednesday.

"Depending on your location, the water level will be 3-to-5 feet higher than normal," Moore said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com and Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com