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Bering Sea storm riders find Alaska ways of coping

Posted: November 12, 2011 - 9:33pm

ANCHORAGE — Hardy Alaskans turned to ingenuity, cooperation, and in some cases, native culture to deal with the worst storm on the state’s western coast in almost four decades. 

Before the monster hit, hunters in one village dismantled drift racks used to dry seal and fish. Others along the state’s western coast performed traditional Eskimo dances seeking good weather. Some brought subsistence comfort foods like caribou and bowhead whale blubber to share at village emergency shelters. 

Still others tended to large sled dog teams by turning their dog houses away from the hurricane-force winds that hammered the weather-whipped region. 

When the northwest Alaska village of Point Hope lost power in the barreling storm, locals in the whaling community lined their vehicles along a runway and used their headlights and emergency flashers to help a plane carrying repair workers land safely.

In all, there was damage in 37 communities but no confirmed injuries from the storm that packed wind gusts near 90 in at least one community. However, a 26-year-old man from the village of Teller remained missing, possibly swept into the Bering Sea, searchers said.  

“It took everybody working together to make this work,” said Marlene Beam, vice principal of the Point Hope school, of the local response. “I was so impressed with the community.”

The Inupiat Eskimo village of 700, built on a large gravel spit, took quite a wallop before the storm whimpered out of the region Thursday. The tempest busted water lines and flooded some homes. It also knocked down power poles and lines, including one pole that was cut in half by an old shack that had been sent flying. 

The village lost power for more than a day and people flocked to the school that served as an emergency evacuation center. Some locals brought muktuk, the Eskimo name for the skin of a bowhead whale with blubber, to share with others who sought shelter. About 100 people in the school gymnasium on Wednesday joined in a traditional Eskimo dance that’s normally done during whaling season, when hunters are seeking good weather. 

Beam was among the locals who drove cars to the darkened airport Thursday to provide a headlight guide for a pilot bringing in repair workers from Barrow, 320 miles to the northeast. The plane landed safely.

“He was an experienced pilot,” Beam said. “He said it was no big deal.”

Power was fully restored the same day.

Down the coast in Nome, mushing is a lifestyle and a passion for some. The town is the finish line for the world’s longest mushing race, the 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Lots dotted with the small houses of dog teams are a common site along the rolling hills of the old gold rush town of 3,600. 

Allen Maxwell, Nome’s building maintenance supervisor, is a recreational musher with a 16-dog team. During the storm, he kept his dogs dry and comfortable by changing the straw in their houses every day and positioning doors away from the wind.

Maxwell said he struggled just to stand upright while feeding the dogs kibble and halibut outside their little shelters near the height of the storm. But the dogs did just fine, apparently unfazed by the weather.

“They were happy to me to see me every night when I got there,” he said. “They came out and ate, no problem.”

The storm flooded some basements along Nome’s main drag, Front Street, very near the Bering Sea. Water crested over the sea wall and circled around the town’s convention center, but crews quickly sealed doors and stacked sandbags, pumping out any water that got in. 

Across the street nearby, the famed big burled arch that marks the Iditarod finish line was unscathed.

In Shishmaref, 125 miles to the north, the storm ate up about 20 feet of land after it hit Tuesday, said Tony Weyiouanna, a lifelong resident. The village is one of Alaska’s most eroded and many of the 560 residents in the Inupiat community have long wanted to relocate from the barrier island. 

The chunk of land that disappeared was in an area used as a subsistence camp where villagers drape seal and fish on driftwood racks to dry.

“Some people dismantled their drying racks when they heard to the storm was coming,” Weyiouanna said.

Those who didn’t lost the racks to the furious winds.

Another storm with blizzard conditions and winds peaking at 55 mph was moving Friday in the eastern Bering Sea and was expected to head toward the town of Bethel, several hundred miles south of Nome, National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Brown said. It will be nowhere as powerful or widespread as the massive storm from earlier in the week.

“It’s still a strong storm, but this is more typical of winter weather southwest Alaska experiences,” Brown said. 

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