More Haines residents prepared to evacuate as weather deteriorates

A gym floor covered in tarps and cots for evacuated residents.
The high school gym in Haines has been transformed into a shelter for evacuees from flooding and landslides. Neighborhoods in the mountain overlooking downtown Haines are prepared to evacuate and will gather here if so. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Haines’ high school gym has been converted into an evacuation center. It has enough cots for 50 people, but no one has moved in yet. 

On Saturday night, Haines city officials put out a warning that people living on the mountainside overlooking downtown should be prepared to pack a bag and flee from landslides. But by Sunday afternoon, only two families had to evacuate their homes.

“We did that because we got information that geologically … there is an aquifer that underlies all of that that has some pressure building that we’re trying to watch,” said interim Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton during a Sunday press briefing. 

RELATED: LISTEN: Haines resident describes rescue after landslide hits neighbors houses

She said there’s been some pushback about that evacuation watch notice. It covers a large area: By some estimates, nearly one-third of the town lives on that hillside. 

“Certainly it’s not our intent to scare people,” she said. “We do need people to be informed. We do need people to be ready and prepared, and we made the decision that knowledge and keeping people informed was more important — even if it feels a bit scary — so that people can make their own decision.”

Interim Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton gives an update on Saturday to residents who fled their homes after flooding and landslides in Haines. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Residents woke up to a thick crust of ice on top of several inches of snow Sunday morning — and it rained on and off for most of the day. 

That complicated the efforts of city and state crews who have been working to clear roads of landslide and flooding debris. Most of them spent the morning clearing snow before they could get to work. 

RELATED: In Haines, clean-up and search efforts happen in brief good-weather window

Despite the weather, two helicopters were able to get into the air. 

One helped with the search effort for a Haines businessman and his tenant, a local kindergarten teacher, who were caught in a landslide Wednesday and have been missing since. 

The 600-foot landslide is still thought to be dangerously unstable, and ground crews have been unable to get too far onto it.

“We continue to hope, we continue to search. I think we continue that until we can’t,” Fullerton said. “So we’re not going to give up.”

The other helicopter had geotechnical experts on board who are helping the city determine whether any of the 50 families who have evacuated can safely return home. 

Fullerton and Haines Mayor Doug Olerud didn’t share any information about when that might happen. But they are bringing city and state experts to talk to evacuees on Sunday evening. 

Fullerton said she knows evacuees are hungry for information. 

That’s a sentiment Dawn Woodard echoes from her room at the Captain’s Choice Motel in downtown Haines.  

As she pet her 156-pound malamute named Gooch, who was rescued after she evacuated, Woodward explained she and her neighbors are worried about their homes. They don’t currently have power, and while the cold temperatures mean the food in her chest freezers is less likely to spoil, it also means her pipes could freeze.

She assumes she’s going to be out of her home for a long time. 

Scott Gray with the Alaska Department of Transportation plows frozen snow and ice on Dec. 6. The department is working to clear landslide debris and improve road conditions in Haines. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Department of Transportation Superintendent Scott Gray said the damage to streets and culverts and hillsides in town is “catastrophic.” He said crews will do what they can to patch roads long enough for them to hold through the winter — but since several areas are still in danger of sliding, that work is ongoing. 

Fullerton, the borough manager, said at least 100 volunteers have registered to be on call to help. Some of them were flagging for road crews on Sunday, while others were on foot helping with search and rescue efforts. Others helped open another hotel to house more evacuees and volunteers. 

A state ferry arrived Sunday afternoon with more supplies and people ready to get to work. 

But first things first, Fullerton said: The Haines Borough police department and shuttles were waiting to meet the ferry, to take everyone that disembarked to be tested for COVID-19. 

Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk, she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.

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