Haines, Alaska, slowly recovering after destructive winter storm

·3 min read

Life in Haines, Alaska is slowly getting back to normal after a brutal winter storm pounded the region in early December, says a local government official, but residents are still dealing with heavy losses.

The borough was under a state of emergency earlier this month after days of heavy rain, combined with melting snow and frozen ground that couldn't absorb water, caused widespread landslides and floods that destroyed roads and homes and also left two people missing.

Haines has since switched to "recovery mode," interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton told CBC on Dec. 30.

"We are put back together as far as day-to-day activity," she said.

All the roads in town damaged by the storm have been temporarily patched up so that they're passable, Fullerton said, with extensive, permanent repairs and other engineering work set to take place in the spring.

The only exception to that is Beach Road, the site of a major landslide that destroyed four homes and left Haines residents David Simmons, 30, and Jenae Larson, 23, missing.

Fullerton said the borough was working with the Alaska government to secure a contract for a geo-hazard engineering study to determine if there's a further risk of slides in the immediate area, and how — or if — the borough can safely start returning residents to their homes and repair the road.

That study is expected to take months to complete.

Alaska State Troopers
Alaska State Troopers

In the meantime, the borough is still completing damage assessment reports and coordinating help for the approximately 30 year-round residents who are still displaced. Fullerton said nine homes in the area are considered "completely destroyed," while others may not be easily accessible or have electricity restored yet.

The major statewide organizations that showed up to offer assistance in the immediate aftermath of the storm have also left, with the local branch of the Salvation Army and other community groups now taking over support work.

Sheri Loomis, a Haines resident who runs the popular Haines Chatters Facebook group, said the town was "looking good," but that there's "still a sadness in the community."

"It's looking more normal (but) we have the big slide you can see when you're coming in or out on the ferry, you can see it when you're driving in multiple places in town, so that's a huge reminder," she said, referring to the Beach Road site.

"So that's a huge reminder — it's going to be a long time to heal from that — but we're looking better, we're looking much better."

Fullerton agreed, saying that for many people, "things look relatively normal now" except for the "huge scar" on the Beach Road hillside.

"That is a difficult reminder for many people in this town, but we are resilient folk and we will come through this," she said.

"I think that like many places we are looking forward to turning the calendar page and hopefully 2021 is going to be a lot easier than 2020 was," she added.

"… We had the COVID emergency that we have been dealing with and then on top of this, a landslide emergency, and we can't forget that we still have the COVID emergency.

"It's been a long time since things have felt normal here."