‘It shook us to the core’: Haines author Heather Lende on grief and recovery after deadly landslides

A white woman in a blue fleece stands on the beach in front of some mountains
Heather Lende stands on the beach outside her home in Haines. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Usually during this time of year, people in Haines are busy preparing for the holidays, not recovering from a deadly and destructive landslide, unleashed after early December’s record rains.

Author Heather Lende, who lives in and writes about Haines, said it may be a while before her hometown’s shattered sense of safety can heal.

“I think it shook us to the core,” she said. “I think we’re all in some ways reckoning with that. If the buried land underneath us or above us is coming apart, where does that put us? At the same time, I think, we all love the place more than ever.”

There’s also the loss of two community members to reconcile. Jenae Larson and David Simmons died when the largest landslide tore through their homes along Beach Road. Lende wrote their obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines. She admits it was hard to write about, but she was determined not to let the drama of their deaths overshadow the beauty of their lives.

Lende watched Larson grow up in Haines and work hard to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a teacher.

“She won just about every scholarship that was given out in town,” Lende said. “She was teaching kindergarten at the school. And it was her first year teaching. And she had also gotten a dog. She had a golden retriever puppy.”

The loss of Larson was especially devastating to teachers and students, who took personal pride in her success.

Although Simmons was not from Haines, the town embraced him. As head of the community’s economic development corporation, he was passionate about helping the town realize its potential. Lende said even though he was only 30, he lived large.

“He circumnavigated the globe three times. He had been to 77 different countries. He spoke Russian, German and French fluently. He was a Fulbright scholar in Belarus before coming to Haines. And he played semi-pro baseball. That’s how he learned to speak German,” she said.

With damage to homes and property into the millions of dollars, Lende said it will be a long time before Haines is made whole, so the town is understandably tender in its grief, still fragile — yet in some ways, stronger than ever.

“And people are just being so nice. And so helpful, so good. And that’s huge,” she said. “I think the story is, like how good it feels to live here right now with the people that are here. And that’s not always the case in Haines. We can be — There’s been times, that I’ve written about, when all I want to do is move. But it’s like right now, it feels really good.”

Lende said she took a walk on the beach on the solstice and felt hopeful that brighter days are ahead for Haines.

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