Alaska News

Wrangell residents cut off by deadly landslide begin returning home

A Wrangell road blocked by a massive, deadly landslide last week was reopened briefly Tuesday to allow stranded residents to return home.

Four people died in the slide that buried three homes the evening of Nov. 20. Two more remained missing as of Tuesday afternoon.

The 450-foot-wide slide ripped up evergreen trees as it pummeled the landscape down a 1,500-foot course to the water, covering the Zimovia Highway near Mile 11.

Two of three homes the slide destroyed were occupied when it struck. Four members of the Heller family have been found dead, including parents Timothy Heller, 44, and Beth Heller, 36, along with their children Mara Heller, 16, and Kara Heller, 11.

Derek Heller, 12, remained missing Tuesday along with the family’s neighbor, Otto Florschutz, 65. Florschutz’s wife survived the landslide and was in good condition after receiving medical care, troopers have said.

On Tuesday afternoon, officials were still clearing trees and debris from the slide area as they monitored the slope’s stability, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Scent-detecting dogs remained in the area as crews worked, Zidek said.

Heavy rain and high winds contributed to the landslide and similar conditions have persisted since the slide, he said.


An estimated 75 residents living south of Mile 11 were without power or internet for roughly a week following the landslide, Zidek said. Power was restored around 6:15 p.m. Monday.

Roughly 35 to 45 residents chose to stay in the area after the slide, a borough official said last week. Boats hauled in supplies like food, fuel, water and medication and many residents used backup generators throughout the week.

Alaska Department of Transportation crews cleared enough debris from the highway by Tuesday to offer emergency road access to residents only, officials said.

[A Wrangell man’s retirement project has become a lifeline for families cut off by deadly landslide]

Permits were issued to people who wanted to get to their homes at City Hall or by police stationed on the road Tuesday, according to Kim Lane, the borough clerk and deputy interim borough manager. Up to 40 permits were issued at City Hall by midmorning Tuesday, but it wasn’t clear how many were issued at the site, she said. The road was scheduled to open three times Tuesday in half-hour increments.

Limited access was expected to continue in the coming days, Zidek said.

It wasn’t clear how many residents planned to return home after power and partial road access were restored, Lane said. Wrangell — home to roughly 2,000 people — is a tight-knit community and many residents in town have opened their homes to those who were displaced during the last week, she said.

“Some folks are returning home, but I think in the area where the slide is, some people — just for fear, because they don’t know and DOT is still out there working on the road and they’re trying to do recovery efforts, so I think those folks are not in their homes yet,” Lane said.

Cracking and shifting had been noted about 30 feet above the roadway, and drones were monitoring the slide for safety, according to a situation report issued Tuesday by the State Emergency Operations Center.

The rain and wind that contributed to the landslide last week also caused a number of smaller slides throughout Southeast Alaska, Zidek said. More precipitation and wind are forecast for this week.

“We haven’t seen those same conditions that led to the initial slide, but they’re still present to some degree,” he said.

Geologists from the state Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys assessed the area and Zidek said officials are trying to keep residents informed about any danger.

“We’re vigilant and we know the community is very concerned about it, so we’re going to try to relay good information about the conditions, but there’s really no way to predict when a landslide is going to occur,” he said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a disaster for the landslide last week and applications for individual assistance opened Tuesday. Affected individuals can apply online or by phone at 844-445-7131 to receive assistance with damages or emergency expenses from the landslide until Jan. 27.

Aside from the three homes that were destroyed by the landslide, Zidek said there was minimal property damage reported. Residents who may have incurred other costs, like purchasing generators, may be eligible for assistance, he said.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at