Thursday February 22, 2024

3 dead, 3 missing after landslide rips through Alaska fishing community

Published : 22 Nov 2023, 01:02

Updated : 22 Nov 2023, 13:36

  By BECKY BOHRER, MARK THIESSEN and JOHN RABY, AP
This image from video provided by Sunrise Aviation shows the landslide that occurred the previous evening near Wrangell, Alaska, on Nov. 21, 2023. Photo: Sunrise Aviation via AP.

Three people were killed and three were missing after a landslide barreled down a heavily forested, rain-soaked mountainside and smashed into homes in a remote fishing community in southeast Alaska.

The slide — estimated to be 450 feet (137 meters) wide — occurred at about 9 p.m. Monday during a significant rain and windstorm near Wrangell, an island community of 2,000 people some 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of the state capital of Juneau.

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. Searchers used a cadaver-sniffing dog and heat-sensing drones to search for two children and one adult unaccounted for after the disaster, while the Coast Guard and other vessels looked along a waterfront littered with rocks, trees and mud.

Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Austin McDaniel said a woman who had been on the upper floor of a home was rescued. She was in good condition and receiving medical care. One of the three homes that was struck was unoccupied, McDaniel said.

"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 heartbroken and praying for all those affected.

The landslide left a scar of barren earth from near the top of the mountain down to the ocean. A wide swath of evergreen trees were ripped out of the ground and a highway was buried by debris, cutting off access and power to approximately 75 homes.

Troopers said a large-scale search and rescue mission wasn't initially possible because the site was unstable and hazardous. A geologist from the state transportation department was flown in from Juneau and conducted a preliminary assessment, clearing some areas of the debris field for ground searches.

Troopers warned of the threat of additional landslides. They urged people caught on the other side of the slide, away from Wrangell, to evacuate by water taxi.

Wrangell received about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain between 1 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday, with wind gusts up to 60 mph (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 farther 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 (183-meter-wide) slide slammed into a neighborhood in the community of Haines, leaving about 9 feet (2.7 meters) of mud and trees covering city streets.