Alaska News

Search for 2 missing Haines residents suspended amid threat of more landslides

Troopers suspended search operations Monday for the two Haines residents missing and presumed dead after a major landslide swept through a residential area last week.

The search for 23-year-old kindergarten teacher Jenae Larson and 30-year-old David Simmons, director of the Haines Economic Development Corp., was called off “due to continued rain and the likelihood of additional landslides in the area,” troopers said in an online report Monday.

Last Wednesday, dozens of landslides caused widespread damage throughout the Haines Borough, which has about 2,500 year-round residents. The path of the largest landslide — about 600 feet wide in the Beach Road neighborhood — remains too unstable to search by foot.

“Essentially, the geologists are going to monitor the situation. If there’s a point in time where it is safe to put people back in the area, that’s when they can go in and do an active search to locate the two missing individuals,” troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said. “We’ve done what we can for the time being. We just need to wait until we can get on that debris.”

Simmons’ home was in the direct path of the landslide, and Larson lived in an apartment above Simmons’ garage. Both were believed to be home at the time.

“Looking at the reality of the situation … it doesn’t look good, and it brings me great pain to say that it is more than likely that Jenae and David are deceased,” Mayor Doug Olerud said Monday.

The two will be added to the state’s clearinghouse of missing persons until they are recovered, said troopers, who added that they would reevaluate the search effort “if new information or evidence is located.”

“At this point, it’s highly, highly unlikely that they have survived this ordeal. That doesn’t make them any less important,” Peters said. “We still want to bring them home to their families to provide that closure to the community.”

[With ongoing landslide danger, Haines evacuees wonder when they can return home]

Larson grew up in Haines and graduated in the town’s 2016 high school class. She graduated from the University of Idaho earlier this year and was in her first year teaching kindergarten at Haines’ school.

Simmons grew up in Chico, California, and settled in Haines in 2017. He had worked in a variety of positions since then, most recently as part-time director of the Haines Economic Development Corp., where he was appointed Aug. 1.

He bought his house on Beach Road in April — a home he shared with his girlfriend — and worked with his dad last winter to build the apartment rental above the garage that Larson and her boyfriend lived in.

Ground searchers who arrived in Haines with troopers left the area on Monday, and a trooper sergeant from Juneau will stay in Haines until Friday to help coordinate disaster relief efforts, Peters said.

Additional canine search teams from Juneau have been sent home, according to interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton. “It’s hard because it’s not surprising, but it feels final,” Fullerton said of the called-off search.

‘Fatigue on all different levels’

About 50 households have evacuated, and Haines officials over the weekend told many more to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. The Coast Guard remained on the ground to assist with landslide evacuations as needed, Fullerton said.

Geologists hired by the borough and dispatched by the state also stayed to continue to study area hillsides, working to determine whether additional landslides are likely.

A flash flood watch was in effect for Haines through 4 p.m. Tuesday. City officials said they want to repair as many utilities as possible before freezing weather arrives midweek.

Nearly a week after the first landslides, some homes remained vacant, their interiors wrecked by mud or water. Some roads were still impassable, and waterfalls cascaded down normally dry cliffs. Mud and slush sucked at boots, and even in untouched homes, residents have packed bags in case of emergency evacuation.

Continued heavy rainfall has caused what one displaced resident, Greg Schlachter, described as “fatigue on all different levels.”

“There’d be fatigue in this scenario even if the weather was fine right now because there’d be such a massive cleanup effort around town,” Schlachter said. “But it was blowing 40 today and raining an inch an hour at times. The road crews can’t stop plugging culverts, let alone rebuild the roads.”

Schools remained closed Monday, and residents were asked to watch for signs of additional landslides. To help geologists, the borough asked residents to contribute observations to a crowdsourced cellphone application or to call in their observations.

Police officers and other workers were regularly watching the color of new waterfalls — if they turned brown, it was a sign of erosion and potential additional landslides.

People outside Haines who want to support repair and recovery were being asked to contribute to the Salvation Army, which is helping evacuees, or donate to the citywide Gofundme fundraiser.

Jenna Kunze

Jenna Kunze is a freelance reporter who writes for the Arctic Sounder. She was previously a reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

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