By Becky Bohrer, Mark Thiessen and John Raby
A landslide that ripped down a sopping, heavily forested mountainside in southeast Alaska killed three people, injured a woman and left three other people missing as it smashed into three homes in a remote fishing community, authorities said Tuesday.
Rescue crews found the body of a girl in an initial search and late Tuesday the bodies of two adults were found by a drone operator. Crews resorted to a cadaver-sniffing dog and heat-sensing drones to search for two children and one adult who remained unaccounted for hours after the disaster, while the Coast Guard and other vessels looked along the oceanfront, which was littered with debris from the landslide. The ages of the children were not released.
The slide – estimated to be about 137 metres wide – occurred at about 9 p.m. Monday during a significant rain and windstorm near Wrangell, an island community of 2,000 residents some 250 kilometres south of Juneau.
Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Austin McDaniel said at a news briefing that crews on Tuesday morning rescued a woman who had been on the upper floor of a home that was struck. She was in good condition and undergoing medical care.
The slide scoured the mountainside, leaving a scar of barren earth from near the top of the peak down to the ocean, wiping out large evergreen trees and leaving what appeared to be remnants of homes in its wake. One of the three homes that was struck was unoccupied, McDaniel said.
A geologist from the state transportation department was flown in from Juneau, the state capital, and conducted a preliminary assessment, clearing some areas of the debris field for ground searches to begin.
Officials posted on Facebook that a local food bank was accepting donations and offered a community gathering place at a bakery. “Our hearts are heavy and our thoughts are with those suffering due to last night’s events,” officials wrote on Wrangell’s Facebook page.
The landslide buried a highway and cut off access and power to approximately 75 homes. Boats evacuated residents from the cut-off area to the unaffected part of town, according to the state emergency management office.
Troopers said a large-scale search and rescue mission wasn’t initially possible because the site was unstable and hazardous.
“Our community is resilient,” Wrangell interim borough manager Mason Villarma told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “And it always comes together for tragedies like this. We’re broken, but resilient and determined to find everybody that’s missing.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for Wrangell, saying he and his wife were praying for all those affected.
“Rose and I are heartbroken by this disaster and we pray for the safety of all those on site and offer all the resources our state has available,” he said in a statement on social media.
The state transportation department said a drone expert and heavy equipment operator also were dispatched to Wrangell. The state’s emergency management division also planned to send someone to Wrangell to determine what the community’s needs are, added agency spokesperson Jeremy Zidek.
Troopers also warned of the threat of possible additional landslides in the area after a day of stormy weather marked by high winds and rain. They urged people caught on the other side of the slide, away from Wrangell, to evacuate by water taxi. A shelter has been established.
Wrangell received about 5 centimetres of rain between 1 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday, with wind gusts up to 96 kph at higher elevations, said Aaron Jacobs, a hydrologist and meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau.
It was part of a strong storm system that moved through southeast Alaska bringing heavy snow in places and blizzard-like conditions to Juneau – and rainfall with minor flooding to areas further south. Landslides also were reported in the Ketchikan area and on Prince of Wales Island, he said.
Rainfall amounts like what Wrangell received Monday are not unusual, Jacobs said, but strong winds could have helped trigger the slide.
Saturated soil can give way when gusts blow trees on a slope, said Barrett Salisbury, a geologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Another storm system is expected in the Wrangell area late Wednesday into Thursday.
Wrangell is one of the oldest non-Alaska Native settlements in the state, founded in 1811 when Russians began trading with Tlingits, according to a state database of Alaska communities. Tlingits, Russians, the British and Americans all accounted for historical influences on Wrangell. Timber once was a major economic driver, but that has shifted to commercial fishing.
In December 2020, torrential rains prompted a landslide in another southeast Alaska city, claiming two lives. The 200-yard-wide slide slammed into a neighbourhood in the community of Haines, leaving about 9 feet (2.7 meters) of mud and trees covering city streets.
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