Landslide victim’s legacy helps Haines disaster survivors

Chamber director Tracey Harmon at the Haines Chamber of Commerce office in downtown Haines, with her son. Dec. 18, 2020. (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Dozens of households remain displaced after the deadly landslide that claimed two lives in Haines earlier this month. Now, a “shop local” initiative — originally spearheaded by one of the disaster’s victims — is playing a role in helping the survivors.

Tracey Harmon has been distributing some of the first byHaines Relief Program vouchers from the Chamber of Commerce office downtown.

They’re just slips of white paper with the byHaines logo on them. But in Haines, they’re as good as cash at local businesses. The funds come from donations to aid families displaced by the weather disaster early this month.

“We just did this really successful shop local campaign, that, you know — and David was so passionate about it. He was the one that made it what it is. He made it successful,” Harmon said.

David is David Simmons, one of the two Haines residents missing and presumed lost in the mudslide. He was the Haines Economic Development Corporation’s executive director.

Simmons worked closely with Harmon, who heads the Haines Chamber of Commerce. In all, their original project funneled about $60,000 in federal pandemic relief into a program that kept people’s money invested in the Haines economy.

Harmon says Simmons was the “numbers man” for the shop local program. By his calculations, tens of thousands in local spending injected about a quarter million dollars into Haines’ economy. She adapted their model to keep relief donations in Haines.

“I thought it is a really good way to honor the work that David was doing, the last bit of work that he was doing. And I know that if he were here today, he would love doing this. He would love doing it. And he would be just so excited to do it,” she said.

At least one donor made their contribution in memory of Simmons and kindergarten teacher Jenae Larson, who are missing and presumed dead after a massive landslide destroyed a swath of Beach Road and several homes on Dec. 2nd.

Harmon said she was initially too stricken by grief and shock to resume work, but she felt the need to honor her friend and colleague. She partnered with Chilkoot Indian Association to collect donations and distribute the vouchers. HEDC joined the effort as well. In its first 10 days, the project received more than $10,000 in donations.

The Wishstar family with their Christmas tree. They evacuated their home Dec. 2 after a landslide came within 500 feet of their property. (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

One of the people it’s helped is Beach Road resident Vanessa Wishstar. Her family is now living in an apartment next door to the chamber office. That’s because their home is in the “red zone,” meaning it’s unsafe to return to. They evacuated with only the clothes on their backs.

“Everything you see here is donated. Everything. Like, every single thing. We literally had, you know, I … my underwear, you know, whatever is on me essentially and that was it,” she said.

Wishstar says the outpouring from the community has gotten the family through the last few weeks. She says she and her husband are taking things hour by hour — not ready for the big picture quite yet. They both lost their jobs during the pandemic. They still owe mortgage on a house they can’t live in. So the prospect of paying for a rental or new home is daunting.

Wishstar says she feels like they’re in the second part of the emergency. The immediate danger has passed, but they’re still in a precarious situation. Things like vouchers help with day to day necessities.

“I’m grateful that people are donating that their vouchers and that’s huge, like huge, and I just really hope they really really feel the warmth of that of how appreciated and needed it is,” she said.

And they’re part of something else that she says has been on her mind lately: giving back. That donated money stays in Haines. She says she doesn’t want to leave. As they fled their home a few weeks ago, she said she didn’t even bother grabbing their passports — Haines is where they want to be.

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