Alaska landslide kills at least 3 people, more believed to be missing

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) -At least three people have been killed, and three others are believed to be missing, in a landslide on the principal highway serving an island community in Southeast Alaska, state officials said on Tuesday.

A steep, heavily wooded mountain slope gave way on Monday night along a coastal stretch of the Zimovia Highway in Wrangell, Alaska, a fishing and logging town of about 2,000 residents 155 miles (250 km) south of Juneau, the state capital, officials said. One person was also injured.

The collapse of the mountainside followed a storm that swept Southeast Alaska with heavy rain and high winds in recent days, saturating soil and heightening landslide hazards across the region, according to Shannon McCarthy, a spokesperson for the state Transportation Department.

The downhill cascade of mud and tree debris struck three homes and buried a 500-foot(152-meter)-wide section of the roadway, according to officials who briefed reporters on a video conference call on Tuesday.

Emergency personnel found the body of a female juvenile in an initial search for survivors on Monday night, and an adult woman was rescued from the debris on Tuesday morning. She was later listed in good condition, said Austin McDaniel a spokesperson for the state Public Safety Department.

Later on Tuesday, two more bodies were found in the area, McDaniel said in a statement.

Three more people - two juveniles and one adult - were believed missing after the search ended for Tuesday, he said.

Ground-level rescue operations were suspended overnight while geologists assessed the risk of additional landslide activity in the area, but on Tuesday portions of the slide zone was deemed stable enough to resume the search.

Aircraft and drones were also deployed in the search. An estimated 20 to 30 residents in the vicinity of the slide were evacuated, said Mason Villarma, acting borough manager.

The settlement of Wrangell, founded in the 19th century by Russians in a region inhabited for centuries by the Native Tlingit people and their ancestors, occupies the northern tip of Wrangell Island in the Alaska Panhandle region.

It has no connection with the Wrangell Mountains or Wrangell-St. Elias National Park farther inland and well to the northwest.

Wrangell is linked to other towns in Southeast Alaska by ferry and airplane. Its principal road is the Zimovia Highway, which runs along the west side of the island for 14 miles. The landslide struck at mile 11, prompting a 5-mile closure of the highway, officials said.

McCarthy said several more slides struck Prince of Wales Island, south of Wrangell, but no casualties were reported there.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Baranjot Kaur and Devika Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Sandra Maler and Miral Fahmy)