For Wrangell’s new city manager, deadly landslide highlights other potential threats to public safety

man in suit in hallway, seated on bench
Mason Vallarma is the interim manager of the City and Borough of Wrangell. The deadly Nov. 20, 2023 landslide happened on his first day on the job. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The lethal landslide in Wrangell abruptly shifted the focus of its new interim city manager. Not that Mason Villarma had had much time to set a focus.

“This landslide happened on my first day … Literally my first day on the job,” said Villarma on what was supposed to be a routine trip to Washington, D.C.

The purpose of the trip was to remind Alaska’s congressional delegation of Wrangell’s budget requests and priorities.

But disaster struck Nov. 20, destroying three homes. Five bodies have been recovered and a child is still missing.

Once the emergency response was underway, Villarma and a small contingent of Wrangell colleagues decided to go ahead with the trip, but with a new list.

“All our projects are public safety-related,” he said. “That’s our focus.”

Villarma, 27, is also the finance director for the City and Borough of Wrangell. 

He said they’ve asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola for help getting a congressional appropriation to shore up the community’s public safety building. And they are asking for federal help to stabilize the Wrangell dam. 

“The dam is the No. 1 worst ranked dam in the state of Alaska,” he said.

The federal government lists the condition of the Wrangell dam as poor and the hazard potential high.

Villarma said it’s on a similar slope to the one that let loose Nov. 20. 

“Our dam – if we get six inches of rainfall, the state says it’s going to go. That’s not far off,” he said. “And we’re incredibly concerned about reinforcing that dam to preserve the 50 homes below it, as well as our water source.”

Murkowski, who claims Wrangell as one of the towns she grew up in, has already requested a $7 million appropriation for Wrangell’s public safety building.

“My office is committed to helping Wrangell in this time of need,” she said in a social media post.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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