Search continues for the missing after landslide leaves 3 dead in Alaska fishing community

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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Searchers with heat-sensing drones and a cadaver-dog kept up the search Wednesday for three people missing in a landslide that barreled down a mountain and slammed into homes in a remote Alaska fishing community, leaving three confirmed dead.

Monday night’s 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 island community of Wrangell, about 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of Juneau. Rescue crews found the body of a girl in an initial search Monday night and the bodies of two adults late Tuesday.

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 (20.9-kilometer) stretch of paved road — currently “the ocean is our only access to those residences,” he said.

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

Searchers again Wednesday used a trained dog and heat-sensing drones to search for two children and one adult still unaccounted for.

Community residents wishing to help the search were welcomed. “There is always a need for volunteer support when responding to a disaster,” Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Austin McDaniel said in an email.

They could assist with checking in trained responders, updating maps, staffing command centers and other duties that would not put untrained people in danger, he said.

“Alaska has the highest per capita rate of veterans in the nation, and in times of disaster we have seen veterans that have highly specialized military training and assistance reach out to assist,” McDaniel said.

The state transportation department said on social media Wednesday 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 undergoing medical care. One of the three homes that was struck was unoccupied, McDaniel said Tuesday.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for Wrangell and promised state resources for the community to recover.

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 (137 meters) wide — occurred during rain and a windstorm. Wrangell received about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain from early Monday until late evening, with wind gusts up to 60 mph (96 kph) 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.

Wrangell is one of the oldest non-Alaska Native settlements in the state, founded in 1811 when Russians began trading with Tlingits, according to a state database of Alaska communities. Indigenous people long lived in the area before outside contact. Tlingits, Russians, the British and Americans all accounted for historical influences on Wrangell.

Timber once was a major economic driver, but that has shifted to commercial fishing. Among its notables were Old West lawman Wyatt Earp, who served as temporary marshal for 10 days while he traveled to the Klondike, and naturist John Muir.

In December 2020, torrential rains prompted a landslide in another southeast Alaska city, claiming two lives. The slide slammed into a neighborhood in the community of Haines, caking city streets with about 9 feet (2.7 meters) of mud and fallen trees.

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Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska.

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