The Aleutian and Pribilof Islands are no stranger to strong winds and rough seas. And that’s exactly what they can expect Friday night, when a high-powered storm hits the Bering Sea. Communities are gearing up to face the historic front.
There’s no doubt that the low-pressure system charging across the Pacific Ocean right now is massive.
If it reaches its full potential, says Dave Snider, “this could be the strongest storm to hit the Bering [Sea] in possibly decades.”
Snider is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. He’s basing his judgment on barometric pressure, which should drop fast — breaking a record low set in Unalaska in 1977.
Besides that, the storm will follow a familiar pattern in the Bering Sea. As pressure drops, winds will gather to hurricane force. And without any land in the way to block them, the gusts will create large waves — up to 50 feet on the open water.
Mariners are being asked not to take any chances. Captain Joseph Deer is in charge of search and rescue for the Coast Guard in Alaska.
For the past week, they’ve been broadcasting warnings to cargo ships and fishermen by radio.
“We’re seeing the fleet move east and south or just slowing down and stopping to let the storm blow through,” Deer says.
Some of them are taking shelter in Unalaska, which shouldn’t be hit hard by the storm. Winds will peak around 50 miles per hour on Friday night.
It’s supposed to be worse in Adak, but boats are tying up there, too. For one thing, Adak has a well-protected harbor. City manager Layton Lockett says the 65-mile-per-hour gusts that are forecast for the central Aleutians on Friday and Saturday are nothing they can’t handle.
“We just had a major storm last week with the same type of wind and we came through fine,” Lockett says.
Adak is a former naval base with hundreds of abandoned houses in varying states of disrepair. Flying debris can be an issue in some neighborhoods.
“There’s a thoroughfare that runs right by that housing,” Lockett says. “We’re asking people to stay off that back road. Don’t go surfing on the beach tomorrow or the weekend. You know, put the jet skis away.”
Jokes aside, Lockett’s prepared to close Adak’s City Hall early if the weather gets too severe.
In the Pribilof Islands, the community of St. Paul is already planning to shut down their entire harbor. It’s positioned right in the path of oncoming swells. Even if the harbor is empty, the 22-foot seas that are forecast this Friday could still have an impact.
Michael Roever is St. Paul’s public safety director.
“With the high waves coming in around the harbor, we may have some low-lying areas that take a little bit more water than normal,” he says.
None of those spots are heavily populated. But the risk of flooding and erosion stretches beyond the Pribilofs. The National Weather Service has issued warnings for the entire southwest coast.
Once the storm passes, Coast Guard Captain Joseph Deer says the agency could conduct a flyover next week.
“We would go to some of the more remote areas and look at see what kind of shore erosion, may call out on [marine radio] channel 16,” Deer says. “Just go out there and get a first-hand view of what the storm may or may not have done along our coasts.”
Until then, the Coast Guard is focused on ensuring safety at sea. Two helicopters will be standing by in Unalaska and Cold Bay, with a cutter posted in between for emergencies.
And back in St. Paul, Roever is trying to make sure the bases are covered. He’s asking people to stock up on food, tie down loose objects in the yard — and above all, stay calm.
That’s been tougher than usual, considering how much attention the storm’s getting nationwide.
“Anytime it’s worded as a ‘super typhoon storm of the century,’ these things raise a lot of red flags for people,” Roever says. “Can be good and bad.”
It’s fine if it pushes them to be take precautions. But at the end of the day, Roever’s confident they’ll pull through. This isn’t the first big front to hit the region. And in all likelihood, it won’t be the last.