Weather expected to halt Sitka landslide recovery effort

National Weather Service Meteorologist Joel Curtis (left) spoke with reporters Friday, along with DOT geologist Mitch McDonald and Deputy Fire Chief Al Stevens. (Photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)
National Weather Service Meteorologist Joel Curtis (left) spoke with reporters Friday, along with DOT geologist Mitch McDonald and Deputy Fire Chief Al Stevens. (Photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

Search teams in Sitka were racing the clock Friday as they worked to find the third victim of Tuesday’s landslide before the arrival of a new storm.

The National Weather Service is forecasting heavy rain and wind in Sitka this weekend.  Officials say the weather will make it unsafe for crews to work, as more rain could cause more slides.

Meanwhile, alsoo released the names of the two landslide victims whose bodies were recovered on Wednesday and Thursday. They were identified as Elmer and Ulises Diaz, ages 26 and 25. The two brothers were working on the Kramer Avenue house that was destroyed in Tuesday’s landslide.

Teams are still searching for the third man missing since Tuesday, 62-year-old William Stortz, Sitka’s building official.

Deputy Fire Chief Al Stevens, who is running the response, said recovery teams had “a very small window” in which to finish their work, “and it’s rapidly closing.”

“I intend to pull all crews out at approximately 8 o’clock tonight. If the rains come sooner, I’m going to pull them out sooner,” Stevens said. “We’re going to pull all equipment, all crews out, obviously for safety reasons. We will probably stand down all operations throughout the weekend, until we reassess the weather and it allows us to get back in there and do whatever it is we need to do.”

There were several dog teams on site from the Juneau-based search group SEADOGS. Dogs had called attention to an area on Thursday where officials hoped to find William Stortz. But Stevens said that as of Friday afternoon, dogs had also indicated several other sites, and crews are working at all of them. He said it isn’t easy going.

“As you can imagine, this is rather deep, with mud, water, logs,” Stevens said. “And you don’t just come in and scoop a big chunk out and call it good. You have to methodically and meticulously pull one piece out at a time, and we have spotters in there that have to look at what’s happening, and this is why it’s taking so long.”

The National Weather Service is predicting up to three inches of rain in the next 36 to 48 hours. But meteorologist Joel Curtis said that’s still significantly less intense than the storm on Tuesday that caused at least six landslides around town.

“We got 2.57 inches at the airport in six hours,” Curtis said. “So we figure along the ridge [where the landslide began] it was much, much more. And I’ve actually got someone with a rain gauge that says, hey, they got five inches. And I am guardedly trusting that reading that they got.”

Curtis said that because the rain is falling over a longer period of time, the risk of landslides this weekend might be limited.

Still, Department of Transportation geologist Mitch McDonald said there is “definitely still the risk” of more slides, and of more movement at the Kramer Avenue slide in particular.

“I would stay away from the area, if the rain intensity occurs as it’s predicted,” McDonald said. “That’s what I personally would do.”

The city has issued a voluntary evacuation request for Kramer Avenue and the neighborhoods below it, including Sand Dollar and Whale Watch Drives. Those residents were evacuated immediately after the landslide, before being allowed to return home on Wednesday.  An evacuation order remains in effect for Jacobs Circle.

A temporary shelter at Grace Harbor Church will be open for residents displaced by the voluntary evacuation.

The City has also called an emergency Assembly meeting for 8 p.m. Friday to consider a local disaster declaration ordinance.

KCAW - Sitka

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