In Haines, clean-up and search efforts happen in brief good-weather window

Volunteers carry heavy, wet carpet out of a home damaged by flooding as another dumps gravel on the ice in front of them to help with traction on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Updated post — Dec. 5 9:30 p.m.

For a few hours on Saturday morning, the rain in Haines slowed to a light drizzle and the clouds retreated.

During a morning press briefing Interim City Manager Alekka Fullerton said city had a “window of opportunity,” because it was going to get a lot harder to clean up the damage from record-breaking rainfall and dozens of landslides that ravaged the town earlier this week.

Interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton gives an update on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, to people who fled their homes after flooding and landslides in Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

During that good-weather window, search and rescue teams took off for their fourth day of looking for two missing residents, whose home was caught up in a 600-foot landslide on Wednesday.

And residents like Lin Edgar got to work cleaning up their flooded homes. Edgar had eight trucks and nearly twenty people show up at her house at first light to help rip up her carpet, dry out her floors and cut away sheetrock damaged from nearly two-feet of water that inundated her home.

“Several days worth of work was done in a matter of minutes,” said Jason Eson who was helping to supervise the cleanup. “Haines makes it happen.”

City and state crews worked to clear roads blocked by dozens of landslides and to bury exposed water lines.

“If they don’t get those covered up, they’re going to freeze and break and then we’ve got a bigger event there that we’re dealing with,” said Mayor Doug Olerud.

At the Chilkoot Indian Association building in downtown a crew rushed to piece together a large metal framed tent to house supplies bought locally and sent from other communities like Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes in Juneau.

And, a group of state geologists finally managed to take off in a helicopter to fly over some of the evacuated neighborhoods in town — an effort that could eventually lead to some of the towns’ 50 displaced families returning home.

But, by mid-afternoon that window had slammed shut when clouds descended, forcing the helicopter to land early. The geologists said they want to study their photos before making any calls as to whether some residents can return to their homes.

Temperatures dropped, and by nightfall the town was blanketed in nearly a foot of snow.

Fullerton said that makes almost everything harder. “The more snow we have, the harder it is to search,” she said Saturday evening. “The added concern is a lot of these houses that they’re evacuating from have not been winterized, because they had to leave very quickly. It’s just one thing after another.”

There are a lot of people in town who are scared. One woman asked Fullerton during an afternoon meeting with evacuees if Haines was a safe place to be right now. She said there is a lot of anxiety in the community and it’s not clear when people will relax again.

“You get up every morning. You do it. I mean, what’s the alternative?” she said. “Get up every morning. Do what needs to be done. Do it all day long and then you go to bed. And then you get up the next day, you do the same thing. And at some point it gets better and easier.”

It’s supposed to start raining on Monday, that could mean more flooding, more unstable ground. Late Saturday evening, Mayor Olerud warned residents in another area of town to be ready to evacuate.

Original post — Dec. 5, 2:20 p.m.

On Saturday Governor Mike Dunleavy released his signed disaster declaration for this week’s damaging storms in Southeast Alaska, while the search continued in Haines for two residents missing since Wednesday’s devastating mudslides.

The hillside along Beach Road, where local business leader David Simmons, 30, and kindergarten teacher Jenae Larson, 23, lived, gave way on Wednesday. Their home was destroyed and the two have been missing since then. State geologists on Saturday said the ground there was too unstable and recommended that search crews stay away from the slide zone. There’s still a risk of another landmass coming down in the area.

On Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, volunteers gather at the Emergency Operations Center in Haines for a third day of searching two people missing after a landslide. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

A K-9 unit from Juneau called SEADOGS was able to search the bottom of the slide along the beach. Those teams are equipped with radar that can determine how deep the debris pile is. A helicopter in Juneau has been fitted with specialized equipment to photograph the slide zone, but it’s not clear if any flights were able to make it into town during the brief good-weather window.

The geologists are also assessing slide risk zones in other parts of town. They’re hoping to clear some areas so that some people who have been evacuated can head home. There are at least fifty displaced families —roughly 10% of the town’s population.

Mayor Doug Olerud gave an update to evacuees on Saturday, telling the community that state geotechnical experts advise against anyone searching landslide areas by foot until four days after the rain stops.

“We know that’s not what you want to hear,” he said, while heavy rain continued to fall outside.

Haines’ mayor and acting borough manager update evacuees on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Meanwhile, local road crews scrambled to clear and repair roadways before the heavy snowfall started again Saturday afternoon. Every single hotel in Haines is full and the school gym has been turned into an emergency shelter with cots ready for anyone who needs a place to sleep.

Rashah McChesney contributed to this story. It is a breaking news story and will be updated.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story listed the wrong last name for Jenae Larson and the wrong date for when she disappeared, it was Wednesday.  

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