The search continued Wednesday for one adult and two children missing in a catastrophic Wrangell landslide that killed at least three people, with state geologists beginning to look at how and why the massive slab of land gave way Monday night.
As of Wednesday morning, searchers were combing areas of the 450-foot-wide debris field covering Mile 11 of the Southeast Alaska town’s Zimovia Highway for the missing people, as well as flying drones, the Alaska Department of Public Safety said. Search and rescue dog teams from Wrangell, Petersburg and Juneau were assisting.
Geologists have cleared some areas of the debris field, a wide swath of mud littered with huge tree trunks snapped like toothpicks.
“Areas of the slide remain unstable and active,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Austin McDaniel wrote.
The three deceased include a girl who was found dead during initial search efforts Monday night, and two adults whose bodies were located by drone operators in the slide area and recovered Tuesday, according to troopers. A woman rescued from the slide area was hospitalized in good condition and receiving medical care, officials said Tuesday.
Geologists and natural hazards specialists with the state are focused on making sure the debris field is safe for the search and rescue effort, but will next look at what caused the slope to give way after a period of intense rain and wind.
The landslide started about 1,500 feet up the mountain from the road, said Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy. It began on Tongass National Forest land and went on to cross state, city and borough and private land before entering the ocean, said Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Lorraine Henry.
Researchers are looking at the history of the land, said Gabriel Wolken, the manager of the state’s climate and cryosphere hazards program. There is no evidence the area was actively being logged and the trees appear to be full grown, Wolken said.
Meanwhile in Wrangell, people were coming together in a time of loss: Someone had cooked pancakes at the community center, and the town was invited for breakfast, the Parks and Recreation Department announced on their Facebook page. A community Thanksgiving meal was planned for the next day.
Power has been restored to the 9-mile area of the Zimovia Highway, according to the City and Borough of Wrangell. There’s no estimate for when power will be restored to homes south of the landslide area.
Wrangell’s schools were closed, but grief counselors were on hand at Evergreen Elementary School for people to speak with until early afternoon on Wednesday. Local public radio station KSTK reported that the U.S. Forest Service was running donations of fuel by boat to the roughly 75 households cut off from the only highway into town. People had been bringing jerry cans of diesel and gasoline to donate to the cut-off residents, KSTK reported. Tlingit & Haida delivered a Starlink system to the cut-off area south of the landslide to help with communications, the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said.
No timeline for clearing the slide and reopening the Zimovia Highway has been established yet. Until the search-and-rescue phase of operations ends and the slide is cleared, transportation officials won’t know how much damage the road itself sustained, McCarthy said.
And for loved ones of those dead and missing, the pain was just beginning. None of the people killed have been officially identified by authorities.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove identifying information about one of the homes destroyed in the landslide.