Three people are confirmed dead and three people remain missing in a devastating Wrangell landslide that sent a 450-foot-wide debris field of earth, rock and trees barreling down a mountainside, swallowing three homes in its path and cutting off the only highway to more than 70 households.
A person described as a juvenile female was found dead Monday night during initial search efforts, Alaska Department of Public Safety spokesman Austin McDaniel said. Early Tuesday, an adult woman was rescued from the slide area, according to Alaska State Troopers.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, the bodies of two adults were found by drone operators in the slide area and recovered, troopers said.
Two juveniles and an adult remain unaccounted for, according to troopers.
Responders at the site of the slide, which occurred just before 9 p.m. Monday in the Southeast Alaska town, determined that three single-family homes were “directly in the path of the landslide,” troopers said Tuesday.
Five people — two adults and three juveniles — lived in one home on the ocean side of Mile 11 of the Zimovia Highway, according to troopers. The girl found Monday night was a member of that household, officials said.
Two adults lived in a home across the highway on the mountainside. One woman was rescued Tuesday from the area of that home and is now hospitalized, troopers said.
It wasn’t immediately clear which household or households the two adults found dead Tuesday were part of. The third home was empty at the time of the landslide, officials said.
The slide closed the highway at Mile 11 and drew a multiagency emergency response, including the local search and rescue team, the city said in a Facebook post.
“Our primary focus is on the search and rescue efforts that are ongoing for the five missing people,” McDaniel said at Tuesday’s briefing, before the two deceased adults were found.
The landslide occurred after a combination of rain and high winds buffeted the community. The slide is estimated to be 450 feet wide where it crossed the road, with a significant debris field, according to state transportation officials.
Monday night’s landslide made the highway impassable and cut off access and power to approximately 75 homes, state officials say. Troopers instructed anyone living between Mile 11 and the end of the pavement to evacuate into Wrangell and warned residents not to enter the area of the slide, which remained active through Monday night. Additional landslides were possible, they said.
Water taxis were available to ferry people on the south end of the road out of the area, troopers said.
It’s too soon to say how long it will take to clear landslide debris and reopen the Zimovia Highway, said Shannon McCarthy, spokeswoman with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. It could take weeks, she said.
Through Monday night into Tuesday, Wrangell’s search and rescue team was working with troopers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Forest Service as well as local contractors, city staff and state transportation officials to sift through debris, city officials said. A larger search and rescue was made impossible by conditions described as “extremely hazardous and unstable.”
Search and rescue workers didn’t get a clear picture of the extent of the slide until after first light, local officials said. Sunrise in Wrangell was just before 7:45 a.m.
A state geologist evaluated the slide area Tuesday and found that some areas were stable enough for search and recovery efforts to take place.
“Portions of the slide area on the ground have been cleared for ground searching,” McDaniel said.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities was bringing in additional personnel and drone equipment on a chartered aircraft from Juneau, they said.
‘A living nightmare’
Judy Guggenbickler, a lifelong Wrangell resident, said she started to think about landslides on Monday before the disaster occurred. Relentless rain had been pounding the town all day.
Then word of the landslide, and missing families in its path, trickled out through Wrangell’s tight community of about 2,000 people.
On Tuesday, the community was reeling, she said. Information was still coming in about missing people in the slide area. People are grieving and shocked, she said. Communication has been difficult, with landlines not working and cellphones in some areas also cut off.
The situation feels surreal, she said: ”It’s a living nightmare.”
Wrangell residents are banding together to help people evacuated from their homes, with water taxis shuttling people who live on the other side of the landslide to town and temporary shelter available, Guggenbickler said.
“We’re just going to take care of ourselves and see what we can do to help,” she said.
The community center and pool were opened to the public Tuesday to provide showers, a kitchen and a warm, dry place for community members, Wrangell Parks and Recreation said in a Facebook post.
“Our hearts are heavy and our thoughts are with those suffering due to last night’s events,” department director Lucy Robinson wrote in the post.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office said he issued a verbal disaster declaration Tuesday morning for Wrangell.
“Rose and I are heartbroken by this disaster and we pray for the safety of all those on site and offer all the resources our state has available,” Dunleavy said in a statement.
Heavy rain and high winds
It was still raining Tuesday in Wrangell, with more precipitation on the way.
Wet weather is expected on the Panhandle, but the period leading up to the landslide also included high winds, according to National Weather Service data. The agency measured about 3 inches of rain starting early Monday morning, and 7 inches in the period between Nov. 10 and Nov. 19, according to Juneau-based meteorologist Andrew Park.
That amount of precipitation is a fairly common occurrence in the temperate rainforests of Southeast, Park said. What was unusual was the wind: A gauge high on Zarembo Island just west of Wrangell registered a 70 mph gust, “right before we got the first report from the city of Wrangell about this landslide,” he said.
It wasn’t clear what had triggered the slide in that exact area, said J. Barrett Salisbury, a geologist with the state of Alaska.
“It’s a moderately steep slope along a mountainside full of moderately steep slopes,” he said. “There are some bedrock ridges that are within the slide mass itself that may have contributed.”
In storms like the ones that have wracked Southeast Alaska this week, strong wind gusts can trigger falling trees that unleash landslides, he said. The slides can travel at speeds of 35 mph, and usually happen when the soil becomes so saturated it “no longer has the strength to hold itself in place.”
“Without specialized instruments in place long before an event like this, it’s virtually impossible to predict this kind of catastrophe,” Salisbury said.
But with smaller recent landslides reported in other areas of Southeast Alaska, people should be aware of ominous signs that a saturated slope could be loosening and a landslide could be imminent: New springs or seeps of water, suddenly out-of-plumb doors or windows in a house, unusual tilting of trees or telephone poles, and especially unexplained, escalating noises such as rumbling or cracking, Salisbury said.
Other destructive landslides have taken lives in Southeast Alaska in past years.
Unusually heavy rains in December 2020 triggered a massive landslide in the Southeast Alaska community of Haines. Two residents died after the 600-foot slide buried their homes in mud and debris.
In August 2015, heavy rain caused six landslides and at least one sinkhole in the Southeast Alaska town of Sitka, leaving three people dead.
Anyone with information about someone in Wrangell who’s currently missing is asked to call the city police department at 907-874-3304 to file a missing persons report.