More Haines residents prepared to evacuate their homes as weather deteriorates

The high school gym in Haines set up as a shelter for evacuees from flooding and landslides
The high school gym in Haines set up as a shelter for evacuees from flooding and landslides on Sunday. The neighborhoods on the mountain overlooking downtown Haines are prepared to evacuate and they will gather here if that becomes necessary (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Haines’ high school gym has been converted into an evacuation center. It has enough cots for 50 people in it, but no one has moved in yet. 

On Saturday night, Haines city officials put out a warning that people living on the mountainside overlooking downtown should be prepared to pack a bag and flee from landslides. But by Sunday afternoon, only two families had to evacuate their homes.

“We did that because we got information that geologically … there is an aquifer that underlies all of that that has some pressure building that we’re trying to watch,” said interim Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton during a Sunday press briefing. 

She said there has been some pushback about that evacuation watch notice. It covers a large area, by some estimates nearly one-third of the town lives on that hillside. 

“Certainly it’s not our intent to scare people,” she said. “We do need people to be informed. We do need people to be ready and prepared and we made the decision that knowledge and keeping people informed was more important — even if it feels a bit scary — so that people can make their own decision.”

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

Residents woke up to a thick crust of ice on top of several inches of snow Sunday morning — and rained on and off for most of the day. 

That complicated the efforts of city and state crews that have been working to clear roads of landslides and debris, because most of them spent the morning clearing snow before they could get to work. 

Despite the weather, two helicopters were able to get into the air. 

One helped with the search effort for a Haines businessman and his tenant, a local kindergarten teacher, who were caught up in a  landslide on Wednesday and have been missing since. 

The 600-foot landslide is still thought to be dangerously unstable and ground crews have been unable to get too far onto it.

“We continue to hope, we continue to search. I think we continue that until we can’t,” Fullerton said. “So we’re not going to give up.”

The other helicopter had geotechnical experts on board who are helping the city determine whether any of the 50 families who have evacuated can safely return home. 

Fullerton and Haines Mayor Doug Olerud didn’t share any information about when that might happen yet. But, they are bringing city and state experts to talk to evacuees on Sunday evening. 

Fullerton said she knows evacuees are hungry for information. 

That’s a sentiment Dawn Woodard echoes from her room at the Captain’s Choice Motel in downtown Haines.  

As she pet her 156-pound malamute named Gooch, who was rescued after she was evacuated, she explained that she and her neighbors are worried about their homes. They don’t currently have power and while the cold temperatures mean that the food in her chest freezers is less likely to spoil — it also means that her pipes could freeze.

But, she assumes she’s going to be out of her home for a long time. 

Scott Gray with the state’s Department of Transportation on plows frozen snow and ice before on Dec. 6. DOT is working to clear landslide debris and work on roads in Haines. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Department of Transportation Superintendent Scott Gray said the damage to streets and culverts and hillsides in town is “catastrophic.” He said crews will do what they can to patch roads long enough for them to hold through the winter, but points out that several areas are still in danger of sliding again so that work is ongoing. 

Fullerton, the borough manager, said at least 100 volunteers have registered to be on-call to help. Some of them were flagging for road crews on Sunday, while others were on foot helping with search and rescue efforts. Still others helped open another hotel to house more evacuees and volunteers. 

A state ferry arrived Sunday afternoon with more supplies and people ready to get to work. 

But, first things first, Fullerton said the Haines Borough police department and shuttles were waiting to meet the ferry to take everyone that disembarked to be tested for COVID-19. 

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