Nov. 9, 2011 — -- On the remote Alaskan coast of the Bering Sea, a storm of "epic magnitude," in the words of the National Weather Service, is punishing local villages with high winds and blizzard conditions.
Winds along the coast reached 40 to 55 mph, with hurricane-force gusts of 85 mph. Forecasters warned of 30-foot waves, and sea levels 8 to 10 feet above normal. Even for western Alaska, one of the stormiest places in America, this storm was unusually fierce.
"One of the worst Bering Sea storms on record will cause widespread strong winds and coastal flooding," said a warning from the weather service. "This will be extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm of an epic magnitude rarely experienced."
The area is sparsely populated, largely because of the harsh climate. Nome, with a population of 3,500, is the largest community on the coast. There are numerous small Inupiat villages, and Alaska's emergency management office warned people there to head for high ground.
"Storms of this magnitude are rarely felt," said Bob Fisher of the weather service. "We get a lot of storms -- western Alaska is really one of the stormiest places on earth. But this one is just a lot stronger."
Forecasters said it was both strong and unusually large, stretching for more than 1,000 miles, as cold air from Siberia collided with relatively warm air from the Pacific Ocean.
There were reports of roofs blown off buildings and debris gathering on the streets in Nome, but damage reports were hard to come by.
"Once daylight breaks, visual inspections will begin and current damage assessments will be made," said Mimi Farley, Nome's Emergency Service Administrator, in an email from this morning that she said was delayed by power outages. "Nome Joint Utility Crews are out and about dealing with issues associated with the weather."
Forecasters compared the storm to one that hit the area in 1974, saying this one appeared to be producing stronger winds. There was another storm of similar magnitude in 1913, they said.
Scott Johnson, a 28-year-old banker in Nome, watched the storm build and made plans to evacuate.
"The waves are starting to go up against our seawall," he said in a conversation with The Associated Press from his second-story apartment on Tuesday afternoon.
"If there are 30-foot waves, A, they might be coming over the sea and B, they might be coming into my apartment," he said.
Ordinarily, sea ice can act to protect coastal areas, said meteorologists. But the Alaskan climate has been warming, and there's less ice than there used to be.
"There's not much ice right now," said Fisher. "A lot of the ice could be blown out by the extremely strong winds."