Dozens of cars still stuck behind Seward landslide as road clearing work begins

Excavators remove debris from a landslide that blocked access from Seward to Lowell Point (Photo courtesy of James Unrein)

Excavators worked through the day on Monday to start clearing spruce trees, mud and boulders that tumbled down a hillside on Saturday evening, blocking off Lowell Point’s only road access to Seward.

The slide also left tourists with tough choices, business operators scrambling to accommodate and forced local Alaskans to figure out how to salvage their weekend getaways.

“It’s a massive impact financially,” said Chance Miller, owner of Miller’s Landing in Lowell Point. “And that’s just for right now.”

The business includes a campground, RV park, and kayak rentals. And, until the landslide is cleared, there’s no way to get to it except by boat. Miller said his business set up a water taxi system within a few hours of the slide, which hit at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday. He’s charging $25 each way for recreators but shuttled stranded customers back to Seward for free.

A contractor for the city started clearing debris on Monday after the city decided there was no immediate risk of another large slide. The process could take at least two weeks if things go smoothly, said Seward City Clerk Brenda Balou.

Balou said the excavators have been working “gingerly” to remove the 300-foot pile of trees, dirt and boulders from the road, which hugs the side of the mountains next to Resurrection Bay.

“They’re scooping earth, moving it, pushing it off,” she said from the road on Monday afternoon. “They’re trying to create a solid ramp access so that other equipment will be able to get up and they can mitigate some of the debris that’s above them.”

Meanwhile, about 40 cars are stuck on the other side of the slide in the Lowell Point area. That includes a couple that were part of a planned birthday celebration for 29-year-old Kipp Wilkinson.

After a day of fishing, Wilkinson drove from town in Seward to Lowell Point at around 7 p.m. on Saturday to set up for a party. He made it past the slide area just in time.

“There were a couple boulders there that we drove past, and then about 30 minutes later we got a call from our friends and said they weren’t going to make it,” he said.

They made the best of it that night.

“We had such a good time. We had all the beer. We had all the fresh fish. The only thing we didn’t have was tartar sauce,” he said.

Wilkinson said he took a water taxi to Seward on Sunday afternoon and hitched a ride back to Anchorage where he lives.

Businesses operators like Lynda Paquette, who runs cabins for Angels Rest in Lowell Point, said out-of-state tourists also had to adapt quickly. One visiting family had to figure out a way to catch their flight the next day in Anchorage.

“They have abandoned their rental car here and checked out and then took the water taxi,” she said.

“They had to spend $400 on PJS Taxi to get from Seward to Anchorage.”

Inspectors look at the Lowell Point landslide (Photo courtesy of James Unrein)

Paquette said some visitors who had stays booked for the next few days or weeks embraced the adventure of an extra water taxi ride. But others weren’t so happy and demanded refunds.

She said the landslide obstacle is another blow for the business after three tough years, beginning with large wildfires in 2019, and then the COVID pandemic.

“I’m feeling more tired than resilient at this point,” she said.

Business owners say landslides are nothing new to the area, but they usually happen after heavy rains. This slide came seemingly without warning, except for a smaller slide that fell earlier in the day Saturday.

Scientists are trying to figure out the cause.

“The current thinking is just that with all the snowfall that we’ve had over the winter, and then over the last few days, the temperatures got very, very warm, and there’s a lot of snowmelt that’s gone on,” said De Anne Stevens, chief of the state’s geological engineering section.

City of Seward photo

Stevens, who is based in Fairbanks, has been analyzing photos of the slide and talking to scientists on the ground and says there’s no immediate threat of another large slide.

Unfortunately for business owners — and recreators — landslides might happen more often in the coming decades due to climate change, said Stevens.

“It’ll probably be a similar situation to what we’re seeing over a lot of parts of Alaska, where landslides are likely to occur, perhaps more frequently, largely, again, due to precipitation and warmer temperatures,” she said.

Alaska Public Media

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