A landslide outside of Wrangell late Monday killed three people, destroyed three homes and left three people still missing, according to state and local officials.
Searchers found a girl dead in the slide in an initial search after the first calls for help, but that search was paused for a time due to unsafe conditions and the possibility of further landslides, according to Alaska State Troopers. On Tuesday, searchers found a woman alive and rushed her to a hospital.
Later Tuesday, a drone operator discovered the bodies of two adults, which were recovered from the debris, troopers said.
Two children and one adult remained missing Tuesday night. Troopers said in a brief update Wednesday morning that search efforts resumed had, asking the public to avoid the area.
Searchers with dogs continued their efforts and still considered it a search-and-rescue operation, troopers spokesperson Austin McDaniel said.
“I know that all of our teams on the ground, with volunteers, are looking at it with the same lens,” McDaniel said.
The names of those who died, the survivor and the missing have not been made public.
A storm slamming Southeast Alaska added moisture to mountainside soil and, maybe with a gust of wind as a trigger, brought debris crashing down into the three homes around 9 p.m. Monday about 11 miles outside of Wrangell on the Zimovia Highway, state officials said.
Just over three inches of rain fell in Wrangell during a 24-hour period beginning early Monday morning.
Officials estimated the landslide, which stretched from the uplands to the coast, was 500 feet wide where it crossed the highway.
The highway runs south from Wrangell between the mountains and the ocean.
McDaniel said the landslide hit one unoccupied home and another home thought to have two adult occupants on the mountain side of the highway, as well as a home with two adults and three children on the water side of the highway.
The first calls for help drew members of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, Wrangell Police Department, Wrangell Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, Wrangell Search and Rescue, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, McDaniel said.
That “hasty” search, which found the dead girl, was called off due to safety concerns, McDaniel said, adding that he did not have details of the search’s timeline. It wasn’t until later that an assessment determined it was safe to return, and the searchers found the woman, who was listed in “good” condition Tuesday, McDaniel said.
Another 20 to 30 people had either been evacuated or had been asked to evacuate the area Tuesday, according to Wrangell Borough Manager Mason Villarma. Shelter space was available at the Stikine Inn and Sourdough Lodge, Villarma said. Harbor Light Church had also offered food and lodging to people displaced by the slide or worried about the stability of other hillsides in the area, and Wrangell Parks & Recreation’s doors were also open to the community Tuesday at no cost.
“This most certainly is a trying time for our community, but as always, this little town of ours has banded together and showed quite some resilience,” he said.
The evacuation was not mandatory but highly recommended for those Zimovia Highway residents, Villarma said.
While the search and debris clearing continue, the risk of more landslides from further rain and storminess continued, not just in Wrangell but elsewhere, too.
“The risk of a debris flow is present throughout Southeast Alaska, where we have steep slopes,” state geologist Barrett Salisbury said. “And we know that heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt or otherwise putting lots of moisture into the soil makes those risks greater.”
Landslides are also difficult to predict in any precise way, Salisbury said, because they require special equipment and long-term monitoring. But there are some immediate warning signs, he said.
Anyone who sees new cracks or bulges forming in the ground around them, sees trees or power poles tilting or has doors or windows that won’t shut because they’re no longer plumb should consider those warnings, Salisbury said.
“Signs that people need to be listening for are noises like rumbling, trees cracking, boulders knocking, especially if that noise starts as a faint noise and gets louder, and louder and louder,” Salisbury said.
At that point, a person should be evacuating the area if they can and helping anyone else, like the elderly or children, do so, as well, Salisbury said. Anyone unable to evacuate would need to stay awake and stay alert, especially when the weather is particularly rainy or there are intense bursts of rain, he said.
“And if there’s imminent danger headed your way, then the best thing to do is to curl into a tight ball and cover your head,” Salisbury said.
State geologists, including Salisbury, would be continuing to assess the landslide hazard over the coming days, he said.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said more personnel and equipment would be arriving to help clear the highway, as well as a disaster response trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Troopers said water taxis were available for residents needing to evacuate who lived farther down the highway beyond the landslide debris.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday morning that he had issued a verbal disaster declaration for the Wrangell landslide, adding that he and his wife were stunned by the damage.
“Rose and I are heartbroken by this disaster and we pray for the safety of all those on site and offer all the resources our state has available,” Dunleavy said.
In a subsequent statement, the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said the slide had “cut off access and power” to about 75 homes. The disaster declaration will enable both individual assistance to affected residents and public assistance to repair or replace infrastructure.
KSTK’s Colette Czarnecki contributed information to this story.