Epic Storm Hits Point Hope, Alaska

Looking out a high school window, we watched our sturdy home strain against hurricane force winds.

Monday, November 7, 2011. We watched the NOAA reports as a violent storm was pounding the Aleutian chain on its way northeast up the Bering Strait. On Tuesday morning, we headed to school as usual. The storm was supposed to hit our village hard at 9 p.m. All in the village were abuzz with the coming storm. A double warning had been issued – hurricane force winds and storm surges. The last storm of this magnitude to hit Point Hope was in 1974. I’m not sure how much of the town had moved to the new site (our current site) by then, but we heard stories that the underground storage areas had been flooded and some of the surge waters had made their way into the village.

The students were asking all sorts of questions: Will it flood? What would a 15-foot wave look like? Have you ever been in a hurricane? We tackled all the questions and found a video to watch about weather as the wind picked up outside and near whiteout conditions obscured the post office from view just across the street from the school.

In the late morning, the decision was made that the students should be sent home. The school bus (yes, this small village has a school bus!) delivered the students safely home and our staff prepared to turn the school into an emergency shelter.

Later, Jack and I tucked in at home. In anticipation of losing power, we charged our phone and laptop, set out flashlights, candles and matches, and filled our water bottles.  By late afternoon, the wind had been whipping through the town. Since there are no trees, it was difficult to visually assess the wind speed. The internet said 23 mph, then 39 mph, then 53 mph, gusts were being reported to 90 mph. Our house began shaking as the gusts grew heavier, and framed pictures on the walls were moving. The heavy wooden doors on an outside cabinet that houses our propane tank began creaking on their hinges and banging open and shut. We could hear the wind roaring through the village.

Through the worsening conditions, our sturdy little house generated confidence. No matter how it shook and shuddered, we were sure it would hold together.

At 5:00 AM, we awoke to fierce winds and no power.

The school had officially become the village’s emergency shelter. Families streamed in with blankets and cots for the elders and sleeping bags and air mattresses for the young. Our school is fairly large. One wing houses the elementary, one wing houses the high school with the middle school,  a small gym (which also operates as a cafeteria) and a large gym in the center. There was ample room to house the 500 people who ended up in the school. Our terrific cafeteria staff worked diligently to feed all the guests breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some rooms became quiet rooms for elders. Other rooms held whole families including nursing mothers and pets.

It was reported that a transformer had been knocked out, utility poles had been snapped, and wires were hanging loose. The high winds precluded linemen from flying out to our village. No one panicked. I think people knew the storm would pass, the winds would calm, the ocean waters would recede and power would be restored.

This morning, when the winds had quieted, Jack and I walked to the coast. The ocean waters were still roiling and the waves were still crashing against the shore. But it was only in the way a tantrumming child beats his fists to the ground when he is nearly out of steam. A seven foot bank of snow was packed up against the berm. The waves hammered away at the bank, evidenced by floating chunks of snow in the waves.

With the winds nearly blown out, planes were finally able to land, delivering the linemen. With steady work from one end of the town to the other, power was restored in it’s own wave from east to west. By about 4:30 p.m. most of the village of Point Hope was lit and houses were warming–and luckily so at that because had the outage lasted longer, there surely would have been frozen and burst water pipes in the freezing cold. The epic storm of 2011 is officially over.