SEARCHING FOR FLORENCE – SAR divers Tom and Joe Akeya of Savoonga walk up the beach after a day of diving off the causeway seawall at Nome’s West Beach. They assisted the search for Florence Okpealuk, who has last been seen on August 30 at West Beach

Search for Florence Okpealuk continues with regional help

The search for 33-year-old Florence Okpealuk of Nome has continued with regional search and rescue groups. Over the past week, people have come in from Brevig Mission, Wales, Savoonga and Teller and from as far away as Bethel and Mountain Village to assist in the ongoing search for Okpealuk.
Volunteers have been conducting aerial, ground, and underwater searchers, but have not found any evidence, according to Nome Volunteer Fire Department Search and Rescue Chief Jim West Jr.
Okpealuk’s friend Billi Jean Miller explained that the presence of other communities is a sign of how cohesive Western Alaska is. In the Bering Strait region, everybody knows everybody, she said, and when people heard that Okpealuk —who has ties to Wales and Teller as well as Nome —was missing, they wanted to help. The joint effort has demonstrated how communities come together to help those in need, Miller said. “There is a massive army behind Flo,” said Miller, “And we’re not going to stop.”
Okpealuk has been missing for over a month, but people are still searching every day, Miller said. Divers from Savoonga dove over 30 feet down to search the nooks and crannies of the port’s breakwater and causeway. The Brevig Mission search and rescue group conducted a land search toward Cripple Creek. Searchers from Teller drove up the Kougarok Road to Dorothy Falls, but after encountering rain and low visibility redirected the search to areas along the Nome-Council Road. An individual from Mountain Village brought sonar equipment and two people from Bethel brought a K9 search dog.
Despite all these efforts, though, West said that the search is in somewhat of a “standstill pattern” due to the lack of clues. Okpealuk was last seen in the morning of August 30 on West Beach, so most of the search has focused on the West side of Nome, including going inland to the Rock Creek Mine and the Sinuk bridge as well as in the opposite direction to the city’s landfill on the Beam Road. West said Nome SAR has also been responding to and chasing leads that people have called in.
The lack of evidence is tough especially because there is also a lot of ground to be covered. “A lot of people are still out there, but where to look is difficult,” said West. He added that Nome SAR has stopped coordinating large scale community searches because there is simply no information about where to search. “It’s very frustrating,” he said.
“Everybody’s still hoping that she’s alive,” West said. But at the same time, he said, “We’ve got to be realistic.”
At some point, the search needs to transition into recovery mode, so West said that they are looking for animal movements, such as flocks of ravens. According to West, the hope was that something would be uncovered during the recent heavy rains, but nothing turned up. He said that in past searches, Nome SAR has waited for the foliage to drop so that there is more visibility in the willows. Another possibility is bringing in search dogs from Wasilla, which needs to go through the State Troopers, a process West said is moving slowly.
As to how long Nome SAR search efforts will continue, West said this is still an open question at the moment; if no solid evidence is found, the only certain deadline is the snowfall. West said he encourages anyone with information to contact either him or the Nome Police Department because, at this point, they are looking into “any and all possibilities.”
NPD Chief Heintzelman said that the search is still ongoing and that the investigation is still open. The police encourage people who may have information on Florence Okpealuk’s disappearance to call 907-443-5262. Callers can remain anonymous.

 

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