Kelly Johnson left her neighborhood on Monday for the first time since a massive avalanche tore down a nearby mountainside four days earlier and blocked the only road into town.
To get out, she had to hop on a snowmachine shuttle run by city workers. They traveled about a mile on a narrow and bumpy path through spruce trees, across the valley from an 80-foot tall mound of avalanche debris that had covered their normal route to town.
“It locked us all into like an island,” she said. “I feel displaced.”
Johnson is among about 150 Alaskans who can’t drive out of their neighborhood in the Chugach Mountains above Eagle River. Last Thursday’s avalanche piled onto Hiland Road, creating a giant wall of ice and snow. City officials say it’ll likely be two weeks until the road is cleared.
In the meantime, Johnson and others say they’re leaning on their tight-knit community of neighbors, the city-run snowmachine shuttle and a homesteader mentality — making the best of whatever supplies they have on hand.
“We don’t have any water. We don’t have any cell service at our house, so you do feel really isolated,” said Johnson. “But it’s so impressive how everybody comes together to help everybody.”
Johnson borrowed a car to get from the snowmachine shuttle to town. She even had a friend drop off diesel generators by helicopter so she could keep her house warm.
“Landed right on South River drive,” she said. “It was something to see. Let me tell you.”
Johnson’s house is only about 80 feet from the avalanche. She and others said they feel lucky that nobody was hurt in the avalanche. Some houses were damaged, but no one was staying in them.
Johnson still didn’t have power by Monday so she was staying with her neighbor, Elaine Blocker, whose had a different challenge: getting her kids to school.
After skipping class last Friday, they took the snowmachine shuttle to the bus stop on Monday.
“It was a long adventure for them,” she said. “We’ll see how long this continues for.”
Through a local Facebook group, neighbors have also been coordinating grocery trips and car sharing. They’ve been dropping off food and mail for one another.
On Monday, work continued to clear the snow from Hiland Road. The debris field is estimated to be 300- to 450-feet wide and up to 80-feet deep. McKenna Brothers Paving trucks carried out loads of snow every few minutes as a bulldozer pushed snow down from the slide toward the road.
RELATED: It’ll likely take 2 weeks to clear snow from Eagle River road after massive avalanche, officials say
Other than the snowmachine shuttle required to get into town, some residents said life didn’t feel too different. Some had resumed remote work. Others walked their dogs, taking advantage of the unusually quiet streets. Drivers stopped and chatted with one another, sharing the latest news they’d heard from city officials or from Facebook posts.
They had to evacuate a day earlier.
City officials gave residents the choice of waiting for the snow to slide naturally — which would be unpredictable and could happen when residents were in their homes — or to evacuate the area and let avalanche crews do the work on Sunday.
They chose option two.
On Sunday, neighbors said they gathered on the south side of the valley to watch as helicopters dropped explosives on the mountainside to trigger the snow to fall. Many knew their houses could be destroyed and watched nervously.
“It was horrifying to watch the whole thing happen and not know what was going to go on,” said Dana Pruner, one of the residents who was evacuated. “When we heard the news that everything was okay, it was kind of shocking”
On Monday, Pruner had just finished hiking in snowshoes down a narrow path through the woods that she stomped out to her house below Hiland Road. She’d started bringing her valuables back now that the avalanche risk was down. A wall of snow was visible a few hundred feet behind her on Hiland Road with spruce trees poking out at odd angles.
While Pruner is comfortable returning to her house briefly to put things back together, she said she doesn’t want to sleep there overnight. She’s staying with a friend down the road.
“I can’t imagine going to sleep in my house tonight,” she said. “I think I would still be a little freaked out.”
City officials said in a statement on Monday that there are “significant risks” to the area until snow clearing is done, but they’re allowing residents back in their homes. They said safety assessments will be done daily.
It’s not the first time Hiland Road has gotten blocked with avalanches. Usually though, they’re cleared within a day, said Kenn Moon, who has lived in the valley off and on since 1960.
Moon, an 87-year-old former Air Force pilot, said he had his first cabin knocked out by an avalanche that hit an area near the current slide. He said a slide as big as the one on Thursday from the area known as Three Bowls was unprecedented.
“Biggest I’ve seen anywhere and I’ve flown all over Alaska,” he said.
But, now that they know everyone is safe, Moon said many neighbors are having some fun. He got his sleeping bag out to rest by the wood stove, along with a stash of chocolate from his recent birthday.
“We were almost disappointed when the power came back on,” he said with a laugh.
He said dozens of neighbors — some of whom he hadn’t met before — have offered to help him. There’s even been some impromptu bonfire parties in the neighborhood. Mayor Dave Bronson and Assemblymember Jamie Allard even stopped by.
“When the world is falling apart and everything seems so bad there’s nothing better than having a party,” said Moon.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Kenn Moon’s name.