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Powerful storm moving toward coastal Alaska

world Updated: Nov 11, 2011 15:16 IST

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An unusual Bering Sea storm packing hurricane-force winds and 35-foot (10.7-meter) waves a type of storm not seen for decades in Alaska moved rapidly on Tuesday toward the western Alaska coastline.

The storm was traveling at 60 mph (96 kph) and had reached the western Aleutian Islands, said Andy Brown, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage. It could reach the beachfront city of Nome by late Tuesday, with winds hitting 85 mph (136 kph).

The storm was expected to produce a 10-foot (3-meter) surge, forcing dozens of coastal communities to make emergency preparations. Brown advised Bering Sea mariners and people living in coastal communities from Wales to Unalakleet to "prepare for a really nasty storm."

The last time forecasters saw something similar was in 1974, when Nome also took the brunt of the storm. That surge measured more than 13 feet (3.9 meters), pushing beach driftwood above the level of the previous storm of its type in 1913.

The storm, described by Brown as "big, deep, low," was taking an unusual path through the northern and eastern Bering Sea.

Winds from the current storm were expected to push large amounts of water into Norton Sound, raising sea levels 10 feet (3 meters) above normal through Wednesday.

Making communities more vulnerable than in past years is the lack of shore-fast sea ice, said Jeff Osinsky, the National Weather Service's regional warning coordinator.

"The presence of sea ice can sometimes act to protect coastal areas," he said.

The bigger concern will be for Alaska Natives in the 18 villages in the region.

The village of Point Hope, which sits on the tip of a peninsula with the Arctic Ocean on one side and the Bering Sea on the other, is 7 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 meters) above sea level, Mayor Steve Oomittuk said. The Inupiat Eskimo village of about 700 people has no sea wall and no evacuation road. If evacuation becomes necessary, everyone will go to the school because it sits on higher ground and is big enough to accommodate everyone, he said.

Smaller communities that are vulnerable to storm erosion were of particular concern, especially the village of Kivalina, already one of the state's most threatened communities because of erosion.