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Originally published November 9, 2011 at 7:55 PM | Page modified November 10, 2011 at 6:17 AM

Lights go out, people flee storm ravaging Alaska coast

One of the strongest storms to hit western Alaska in nearly 40 years battered coastal communities Wednesday with snow and hurricane-force winds.

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ANCHORAGE — One of the strongest storms to hit western Alaska in nearly 40 years battered coastal communities Wednesday with snow and hurricane-force winds, knocking out power, ripping up roofs and forcing some residents to board up windows and seek higher ground.

A Seattle-based fishing trawler and its crew survived the brunt of the storm Wednesday in the Bering Sea after the vessel lost an engine and needed Coast Guard assistance.

The Rebecca Irene, a 146-foot vessel with 270,000 pounds of frozen fish in its holds, suffered no damage and no injuries were reported, said Capt. Daniel Travers of U.S. Coast Guard District 17.

The ship had called for help early Tuesday after one of its two engines failed before the storm struck. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sherman arrived midday and transferred 20 of the fishing vessel's nonessential crew members. Fourteen remained on board.

The cutter continued to escort the partially disabled vessel until a private tug, the Double Eagle, arrived Wednesday morning to begin towing it to safety, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

The Rebecca Irene was expected to reach Dutch Harbor in Unalaska on Thursday, Francis said.

The Coast Guard cutter, meanwhile, was expected to arrive in port Wednesday night, resupply and head north to Nome to assist storm victims, Francis said.

In Nome — the biggest of the coastal communities with about 3,600 residents — wind gusted to 61 mph. City officials said they closed and barricaded streets in low-lying areas, where flooding was reported. Sustained gusts of up to 70 mph continued in the northwest part of the state, with freezing spray and warnings of blizzards and coastal flooding, Francis said. The Aleutian Islands were experiencing some of the storm's effects, she added.

At least 36 fishing vessels were believed to be in the region, catching cod and flatfish. Some boats returned to port before the storm struck, Francis said.

Officials warned that many points farther north on Alaska's western coast between Norton Sound and Point Hope remained vulnerable to a possible surge of seawater that could bring varying degrees of flooding to villages already soaked, depending on how much shoreline protection they have — or don't have.

"This is a storm of epic proportions," said meteorologist Jeff Osiensky of the National Weather Service. "We're not out of the woods with this."

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