3 dead and 3 missing after landslide rips through remote Alaska fishing community

by Ryan Lee
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Landslide Tragedy

Three individuals lost their lives, and three others remain missing following a devastating landslide that swept through a remote fishing community in southeastern Alaska. The tragic event unfolded as a massive landslide, spanning an estimated 450 feet (137 meters) in width, descended down a densely forested mountainside during a period of heavy rain and strong winds near Wrangell, an island community located approximately 155 miles (250 kilometers) to the south of the state capital, Juneau.

During the initial search and rescue operations, rescue teams discovered the body of a young girl. Subsequently, late on Tuesday, the bodies of two adults were located with the assistance of a drone operator. In their ongoing efforts to locate the three missing individuals, search teams have employed the use of cadaver-sniffing dogs and heat-sensing drones. The Coast Guard and other maritime vessels have scoured the waterfront area strewn with rocks, trees, and mud.

It was reported that one woman, who had been inside a home on an upper floor at the time of the landslide, was successfully rescued. Fortunately, she is in good condition and receiving medical care. Additionally, it was noted that one of the three affected homes was unoccupied during the tragic event.

The Wrangell interim borough manager, Mason Villarma, expressed the community’s resilience in the face of this disaster. He emphasized that while they are undoubtedly shaken, the community is determined to locate everyone who is still missing.

In response to this catastrophe, Governor Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for Wrangell, extending his heartfelt condolences and prayers to all those impacted by this tragic event.

The landslide has left a visible scar on the landscape, creating a barren swath of earth from the mountaintop down to the ocean. The destructive force of the landslide uprooted a wide expanse of evergreen trees and buried a section of a highway under debris, cutting off access and power to around 75 homes.

Initially, the hazardous and unstable conditions at the site made it challenging to conduct a large-scale search and rescue mission. However, a geologist from the state transportation department, flown in from Juneau, conducted a preliminary assessment, allowing for the clearance of some areas within the debris field to facilitate ground searches.

Troopers have issued warnings regarding the potential for additional landslides and have urged individuals on the opposite side of the slide, away from Wrangell, to evacuate via water taxi.

Meteorological data indicates that Wrangell received approximately 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain between 1 a.m. and 8 p.m. on the day of the landslide, accompanied by wind gusts reaching up to 60 mph (96 kph) at higher elevations. This weather event was part of a strong storm system that swept through southeastern Alaska, bringing heavy snowfall to some areas and blizzard-like conditions to Juneau, as well as minor flooding due to rainfall in more southern regions. Reports of landslides were also recorded in the Ketchikan area and on Prince of Wales Island.

While the level of rainfall experienced in Wrangell on that day was not unusual, the presence of strong winds may have played a role in triggering the landslide. Saturated soil is susceptible to giving way when trees are uprooted by powerful gusts, as explained by Barrett Salisbury, a geologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Another storm system is anticipated to affect the Wrangell area later in the week, raising concerns for ongoing recovery efforts.

Historically, Wrangell has played a significant role as one of the oldest non-Alaska Native settlements in the state, with its origins dating back to 1811 when Russian traders began engaging with the Tlingit population. Over time, Wrangell has been influenced by the Tlingits, Russians, British, and Americans. While timber was once a major economic driver, the focus has since shifted to commercial fishing.

This devastating event serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of communities in Alaska to natural disasters, particularly in regions prone to heavy rainfall and geological instability.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Landslide Tragedy

What caused the landslide in the remote Alaska fishing community?

The landslide was triggered by heavy rainfall and strong winds, which saturated the soil and likely uprooted trees on the mountainside, leading to the disaster.

How many casualties were reported in the landslide?

Three individuals lost their lives in the landslide, and at the time of the report, three more were still missing, prompting ongoing search and rescue efforts.

What measures were taken in response to the disaster?

Rescue teams utilized cadaver-sniffing dogs, heat-sensing drones, and maritime vessels in their search and rescue operations. Additionally, a geologist assessed the site for safety, and warnings about potential further landslides were issued.

What was the extent of the damage caused by the landslide?

The landslide left a significant scar on the landscape, uprooting evergreen trees and burying a section of a highway. Access and power to around 75 homes were cut off due to the debris.

How did the community and authorities respond to the disaster?

The Wrangell community expressed resilience and determination in the face of the tragedy, with authorities issuing a disaster declaration. Governor Mike Dunleavy extended condolences and support to those affected, emphasizing the need for a collective effort in response to the disaster.

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