Crews begin dangerous clean up after catastrophic landslides in Haines

A truck below a house that is partially on its side and covered with light snow
A heavily damaged property on Lutak Road on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. The owners are staying nearby in an RV, working to winterize their home and get some things operational again. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Heavy equipment operators have been clearing mudslides off Haines’ roads for the past week. The work has been particularly dangerous along Lutak Inlet, where slides swept through homes and left residents stranded without electricity for multiple days.

On Sunday morning, it was pouring rain on top of six inches of ice-encrusted snow. Plow trucks were making their way around Haines, clearing the streets of snow. Once they were done, many of the same drivers got to work repairing the town’s damaged roads beneath.

Scott Gray with the state’s Department of Transportation drives through frozen snow and ice on Dec. 6, 2020. DOT is working to clear landslide debris and work on roads in Haines. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Scott Gray is the Southeast Alaska Operations Superintendent for the Alaska Department of Transportation. He checked the progress along Lutak Road, the area he is most concerned about.

“[It’s] catastrophic,” he said. “The amount of mudslides, the bank failures, the debris flows, whatever you want to call them. It’s just huge.”

Dozens of slides covered the 10-mile stretch of road that connects downtown Haines to the freight dock, the ferry terminal and Chilkoot Lake.

In the summertime, scores of tourists travel to the end of Lutak Inlet to watch bears feed on spawning salmon. Along the way, they pass vacation rentals and homes with scenic views of the ocean and the mountains that loom above it.

After the first slides came down last week, it took days to clear a safe path so those residents could make it back into town.

“You’ve got beautiful homes here that are in debris flow areas,” Gray said. “We have workers that are working right in the middle of it all, trying to get people power back. They’re really in a very hazardous situation here.”

After checking in with the crew working on the power line, Gray drove to the very end of Lutak Road. He pulled up to a debris flow that had tipped over a vacant three story home and swept two vehicles.

Jamie Grubb talks about her concerns of a landlslide generating a tsunami that could threaten her already damaged home on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. Grubb and her partner have not evacuated into town and are still living near their damaged home at the end of Lutak Road. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Jamie Grubb lives next door to the leaning house. She and her husband Vance were asleep in bed when the slide came through their home early Wednesday morning.

“We sat up in bed, and then all the sand started coming in. Within 30 seconds all of this happened. By the time we got out of bed, the sand was already coming through the door downstairs,” she said.

The slide broke through a wall, but nobody was hurt. Her neighbors have all evacuated, but Grubb and her husband are staying in a mobile home nearby so they can make some repairs.

“Yeah, they came and told us that we should evacuate and of course we’re just stubborn,” she said. “But once we’re done with this we need to start going to town and start helping other people that need help. But we just gotta get our wall up and finish so that our pipes don’t freeze.”

It took two and a half days to clear the sand out of Grubb’s house. Her next task was to cut some nearby trees down to prevent them from falling on the roof in case there’s another mudslide.

Gray will be in Haines until Friday, assisting the local Department of Transportation staff.

By Sunday evening, Alaska Power and Telephone had fixed the power lines along Lutak Road, bringing light back to the end of the inlet.

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