1 dead, others believed missing in Alaska landslide, authorities say
Nov 21, 2023, 9:48 AM | Updated: 1:12 pm
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — At least one person has died and others are believed missing after a large landslide ripped down a mountain near a remote community in southeast Alaska during the night, authorities said Tuesday. Three homes were in the direct path of the landslide.
The slide occurred about 9 p.m. Monday near Wrangell, a small fishing community of just over 2,000 residents located on an island about 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of Juneau.
A preliminary survey determined three homes were in the direct path of the slide, and first responders started a quick search for survivors, Alaska State Troopers said in a statement.
“The body of one deceased individual was located during the hasty search. Multiple individuals are believed to have been within the slide area when the landslide occurred and are believed to be missing,” the statement added.
People were urged to contact the local police if they know of anyone missing.
Phone service appeared to be down for the remote community, but officials posted on Facebook that a local food bank was accepting donations and offered a community gathering place at a local bakery. ‘Our hearts are heavy and our thoughts are with those suffering due to last night’s events,’ officials wrote on Wrangell’s Facebook page.
Pictures of the landslide posted on social media show the extent of damage. The slide scoured the mountainside, leaving barren earth from near the top of the mountain to the ocean, wiping out a swath of large evergreen trees and leaving what appeared to be remnants of homes in its wake.
Troopers said a large-scale search and rescue mission wasn’t immediately possible due to the site being unstable and hazardous. A state geologist would first have to assess the site to ensure conditions were safe before proceeding, they said.
Attempts were being made to transport a geologist to the site on Tuesday.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he issued a disaster declaration for Wrangell, adding he and his wife Rose were concerned for the well-being of all those in the area.
“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,” he said in a statement on social media.
Authorities said they may use planes, helicopters and drones to conduct aerial searches of the slide until they are cleared to search in the debris. Additional transportation department personnel and drones were being flown to Wrangell from Juneau on chartered flight.
The state’s emergency management division also planned to send someone to Wrangell to determine what the community’s needs are, said agency spokesperson Jeremy Zidek.
Troopers also warned that additional landslides are possible in the area. They urged people caught on the other side of the slide, away from Wrangell, to evacuate by water taxi. A shelter has been established.
Wrangell received about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain between 1 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday, with wind gusts at higher elevations at up to 60 mph, said Aaron Jacobs, a hydrologist and meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau.
It was part of a strong storm system that moved through southeast Alaska Monday, bringing heavy snow to communities like Haines and blizzard-like conditions to Juneau and rainfall with minor flooding in areas further south. Landslides also were reported in the Ketchikan area and on Prince of Wales Island, he said.
Another storm system is expected in the Wrangell area late Wednesday into Thursday with light to moderate precipitation, he said.
Wrangell is one of the oldest non-Alaska Native settlements in the state. It was founded in 1811 when Russians began trading with Tlingits, according to a state database of Alaska communities.
Tlingits, Russians, the British and Americans all accounted for historical influences on the community. Timber at one point was a major part of the economy but that has shifted to commercial fishing.
In December 2020, torrential rains prompted a landslide in another southeast Alaska city, claiming two lives. The 200-yard-wide slide slammed into a neighborhood in the community of Haines, leaving about 9 feet (2.7 meters) of mud and trees covering city streets.
Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska. Associated Press writer John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.