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3 men presumed dead after landslides in Sitka

Three people were presumed dead in Sitka on Tuesday after heavy rain caused six landslides and at least one sinkhole in the Southeast Alaska town, a municipal spokeswoman said.

The first call about a landslide came in at 9:41 a.m. Tuesday, and emergency responders focused their efforts on one slide near Kramer Avenue, on the outskirts of town, Sitka Police Department Chief Sheldon Schmitt said.

"There are new houses being built and (the landslide) came down the mountain, across the road and hit the houses below," Schmitt said. "A construction crew and city worker were all in the area and we haven't located them yet."

One of the landslides destroyed a home on Kramer Avenue, said Sitka municipal clerk and spokeswoman Sara Peterson.

By 5:30 p.m., Peterson had identified the three people unaccounted for as Sitka Fire Marshal William Stortz, 61; Elmer Diaz, 26; and Ulises Diaz, 25. All three men were near Kramer Avenue that morning, Peterson said.

Elmer and Ulises Diaz had been painting and completing drywall work on a home there, said Ramon Hernandez, who worked at Four Points Painting with the Diaz brothers.

"I want people to know they were great people," Hernandez said. He said the two consistently worked hard and loved sports -- particularly basketball.

Hernandez said he and the Diazes were partners in the construction business for several years.

"I've been asking for pictures of the site and it just gives me the chills -- all those logs on top of them," he said.

Peterson said around 7 p.m. that a team was searching the area cautiously because the terrain remained unstable.

Searchers included personnel from the Sitka Fire Department and the city and borough of Sitka as well as Alaska State Troopers and community volunteers.

"We had an outpouring of support," she said. "People are concerned and it's troubling because people want to go to the site and it's not safe, so that's frustrating for individuals."

By 9 p.m., Peterson said searchers had presumed that the three men missing had died.

"At first light they will assess the situation with some qualified geologists. If the site is determined safe at some point, then they will begin debris removal and body recovery," she said.

The morning downpour triggered several other landslides Tuesday, including one by the site of a pulp mill that took out part of a building. Flooding caused a sinkhole in the main area of town, Schmitt said.

"It has been raining like hell for the last 24 hours," Schmitt said around noon Tuesday.

The sinkhole was on Halibut Point Road in a parking lot across the street from a McDonald's, according to Sitka resident Grace Roller.

Homes from Kramer Avenue to the 2400 block of Halibut Point Road were evacuated, Peterson said, adding that residents should avoid the area.

Peterson said of the six landslides recorded Tuesday, three could be reached by the road system and the others were off the trail system.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Sitka resident, said in a phone interview Tuesday evening that he was heading home from a wedding in the Lower 48. He'd been getting calls and texts from residents all day, he said.

When he was growing up in Sitka, landslides were never much cause for concern, Kreiss-Tomkins said. But Tuesday's events seemed to have "opened many people's eyes," he said.

Landslides in recent years have caused massive damage, he said. Kreiss-Tomkins recalled a landslide in May 2013 during which a Sitka couple narrowly escaped a cabin as a massive piece of mountain above it gave way.

Kreiss-Tomkins said he's spoken with state and federal agencies, putting them in touch with officials in Sitka.

By 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, 2.5 inches of rain had been recorded at the Sitka airport, National Weather Service meteorologist Kimberly Vaughan said.

According to Vaughan, the rain started at 5:30 a.m. In the next 30 minutes, a half-inch fell. In three hours, 1.4 inches fell.

"I think the fact of how quickly the rain fell, in such a short amount of time, is why it had such a high impact," Vaughan said. "And really, the mudslides had the two main ingredients it needed to happen -- a very saturated ground and wind."

Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management officials said the state emergency operation center had been tracking the landslides since 10 a.m., speaking with Sitka officials on the ground.

Sitka's assistant fire chief called the division and reported the series of landslides; the city reported it was declaring a disaster, and in response the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) preparedness level increased from one to two, said Mark Roberts, operations chief for the event.

The upgraded level means "heightened awareness," Roberts said.

"(Sitka officials) are still trying to assess the situation, and we're supporting them as needed," he said.

Julie Baker, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that at Sitka's request, they had sent an operations staff member and a public information officer to the town to help with the response.

Gov. Bill Walker will be traveling to Sitka on Wednesday to assess the damage, said press secretary Katie Marquette.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are missing and all the people affected by the landslides in Sitka today," Walker said in a prepared statement. "I will be traveling to Sitka tomorrow to meet with local officials and determine how the state can best assist with relief efforts. Thank you to all the volunteers and emergency responders from the Sitka police and fire departments who are working so hard to protect the lives and property of Alaskans."

No state-maintained roads were closed due to the landslides, said Department of Transportation spokesman Jeremy Woodrow. DOT is carefully watching waterways in the area, he said.

Rain was expected to continue throughout the day and overnight, but Vaughan said the amounts with be "drastically less." Peterson said the rain subsided in the afternoon and a drizzle had started by evening.

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