Alaska News

Searchers begin clearing debris as 3 remain missing after deadly landslide in Wrangell

Searchers looking for three people who remain missing after a massive landslide that killed three others and injured a fourth in Wrangell have changed their strategy — from holding an active search to what’s now a reactive search that will involve methodically clearing the highway, officials said Thursday.

“During active search periods we have searchers in the field meticulously looking for missing persons,” Austin McDaniel, a spokesman with the Alaska Department of Public Safety, told the Associated Press. “During reactive searches, search teams are not actively in the field but will react to new information and then actively search that area supported by the new information.”

Since Monday night’s slide, officials have inspected the site by air with drones, helicopters and planes while teams using detection dogs and sonar covered the ground and water, but the three people — one adult and two juveniles — remain missing, McDaniel said.

The slide churned up the earth from near the top of the mountain down to the ocean, tearing down a wide swath of evergreen trees and burying a highway in the Southeast Alaska island community, which is located about 155 miles south of Juneau. Rescue crews found the body of a girl in an initial search Monday night and the bodies of two adults on Tuesday.

[Search for missing people continues at site of deadly Wrangell landslide as scientists assess slope and safety]

Around 54 homes are cut off from town by the landslide, and roughly 35 to 45 people have chosen to stay in that area, interim borough manager Mason Villarma said. Boats are being used to provide supplies, including food, fuel and water, and prescription medications to those residents. Given the geography of the island — with the town at the northern point and houses along a 13-mile stretch of paved road — currently “the ocean is our only access to those residences,” he said.

On Thursday, the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said the state transportation department’s clearing of debris will begin on the Zimovia Highway’s north side, with the removal of trees, and then progress to the middle of the landslide.


“The initial objective is to create one lane road access. This will allow the power company to restore power poles within the slide zone and reconnect power out the road,” the division said in an update on the multi-agency landslide response.

Wrangell usually celebrates Thanksgiving with a tree lighting and downtown shopping events but could replace that with a vigil, Villarma said.

In that way, the town “can come together physically and recognize the tragedy and the loss of life ... but also the triumph of a small community that’s really come together and been able to pull off some remarkable successes, even in the face of all this adversity,” Villarma said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

The state transportation department had said on social media Wednesday that the process of clearing the highway would only begin once search and rescue efforts were complete. There was no immediate timeline for when that portion of the highway would reopen.

A woman who had been on the upper floor of a home was rescued Tuesday. She was in good condition and undergoing medical care. One of the three homes that was struck was unoccupied, McDaniel said Tuesday.

Because of the hazards of searching an unstable area, a geologist from the state transportation department was brought in to conduct a preliminary assessment, clearing some areas of the slide for ground searches. But authorities warned of a threat of additional landslides.

The slide — estimated to be 450 feet wide — occurred during rain and a windstorm. Wrangell received about 2 inches of rain from early Monday until late evening, with wind gusts up to 60 mph at higher elevations, said Aaron Jacobs, a National Weather Service hydrologist and meteorologist in Juneau.

It was part of a strong storm system that moved through Southeast Alaska, bringing heavy snow in places and blizzard-like conditions to the state capital Juneau as well as rainfall with minor flooding further south.

Jacobs said the rainfall Wrangell received on Monday wasn’t unusual, but the strong winds could have helped trigger the slide.

Saturated soil can give way when gusts blow trees on a slope, said Barrett Salisbury, a geologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.