Four of six feared missing in Haines landslide found safe

A landslide in Haines swept houses, trees and debris across Beach Road and into the bay in front of town on Wednesday (Photo courtesy Greg Bigsby)

Searchers will continue to look Thursday for two people still missing after a large landslide rumbled through a residential area on Beach Road in Haines Wednesday afternoon, destroying at least four houses, according to the Alaska State Troopers.

On Thursday morning, Haines Mayor Douglas Olerud identified the two missing residents. They are Jenae Larson and David Simmons.

“The side of the mountain has completely pushed them down to the waterline and into the water. The water was full of debris from pieces of the houses,” said Haines Fire Chief Al Giddings. “While we were on site, the ground began to rumble again like a locomotive.”

Witnesses have estimated the slide spans hundreds of feet across. It’s a muddy smear down the side of the mountain south of Haines. Rubble from homes drifted in Lynn Canal below as the light faded Wednesday.

Searchers suspended operations late Wednesday as the slide continued to move. Six people were originally feared missing, but four were found safe by Thursday morning. Troopers said there were nine feet of mud and trees covering the area. Surrounding homes were evacuated, and a helicopter planned to deploy at sunrise to continue surveying by air.

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the Alaska Army National Guard in Juneau, prepares to take search and rescue crew to Haines (Alaska Army National Guard courtesy photo by 1st Lt. David Marshall)
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the Alaska Army National Guard in Juneau, prepares to take search and rescue crew to Haines on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (Alaska Army National Guard courtesy photo by 1st Lt. David Marshall)

Record downpours brought at least eight inches of rain in a span of 48 hours from Tuesday to Wednesday, and the rain continued overnight. The heavy rain melted snowpack in the uplands and saturated the soil, which contributed to the instability of the hillside.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy sent thoughts and prayers along with “assets from the Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska National Guard,” according to a Wednesday evening statement. Giddings said a mountain rescue team and up to eight members of Juneau’s Capital City Fire/Rescue were activated, as were personnel from Sitka, Skagway and other communities. The Coast Guard will also assist, along with local volunteers.

On Wednesday night Giddings erected a command center at the public safety building in downtown Haines. He’s acting as incident commander to coordinate the effort as help arrives from across the region.

“We have, unconfirmed, possible six people that are unaccounted for. But two confirmed that are unaccounted for. So that’s all we have right now. …We’re not losing hope,” he said.

Salvation Army Captain Kevin Woods spent Wednesday helping evacuees find shelter. That’s after his road washed out and a neighbor picked him and his wife up along the highway.

“We worked on getting people in motels, and getting some food and some dry clothes and and just making them as comfortable as possible,” he said.

Woods estimates there are as many as 20 hotel rooms occupied by displaced residents.

A mobile canteen — a specialized disaster vehicle — is on its way from Juneau to help feed those affected by the natural disaster.

State transportation road crews are actively working to repair the highway and keep supplies flowing. Dozens of roads were damaged or obstructed by flooding and fallen trees.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a mix of rain and snow for the rest of the week.

Editor Julia O’Malley contributed to this report from Anchorage.

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