'Hive of activity' in storm-ravaged Haines, Alaska, as search continues for 2 missing people

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Two people in Haines, Alaska, were still unaccounted for on Thursday afternoon, after torrential rains washed out roads and created sinkholes and mudslides on Wednesday.

"We are still looking for two people," said Mayor Doug Olerud, early Thursday morning.

"They had to call off the search yesterday because the ground was still too unstable in the area. And so they're hoping that will stabilize today and hopefully we'll have good results from the search."

Alekka Fullerton, interim manager of the Haines Borough Government, said on Thursday afternoon the search was still ongoing.

"This has been a hive of activity, we have the Coast Guard here with helicopters and they have been using their technology to go and look at the slide area," said Fullerton.

She said geologists from Alaska's Department of Natural Resources were expected later on Thursday to help determine the stability of the area.

"We have lots of volunteers who are ready with search and rescue, however they have decided the mountain is not stable enough to send out the volunteers because there is another area that could slide as well."

She said the road has been opened up to the airport and they had also gained access to Lutak dock as well, where the barge comes in.

State of emergency

Haines Avalanche Center director Erik Stevens said the storm began Monday night, and that what started as snowfall turned into rain and continued into Wednesday.

Several homes were destroyed by mudslides, Mayor Olerud said, and some areas were evacuated on Wednesday using boats, as roads were washed-out.

The borough has declared a state of emergency.

Submitted by Rodney Hinson
Submitted by Rodney Hinson

Olerud said on Thursday that the rain had let up, and flood waters were starting to recede.

"Yesterday, you really couldn't make any progress on anything because there was so much water still coming down," he said.

"But as I drove into town today, where it was six inches coming over the highway yesterday morning, the road was clear of water."

The U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska Army Nation Guard and Alaska State Troopers are all involved in the search and rescue operations, along with local officials and volunteers, Olerud said.

The mayor says he spoke with state Governor Mike Dunleavy and other state officials on Wednesday evening.

"They're going to be sending quite a few resources to us today, more search and rescue personnel. We've got a Coast Guard cutter here. I think we've got another one on the way," Olerud said.

183 metre-wide mudslide

The people unaccounted for were in the Beach Road area, where the largest slide — about 183 metres wide — came down Wednesday afternoon, Olerud told the Associated Press. About 2.7 metres of mud and trees cover the area, according to state troopers.

At least two evacuations were underway Wednesday afternoon, according to the Haines Borough Government Facebook page — the police department was getting residents on Lutak Spur Road out by boat, and assisting residents fleeing Beach Road after a major landslide.

Submitted by Darwin Feakes
Submitted by Darwin Feakes

Olerud said the state was sending in some geotechnical experts on Thursday to identify any other areas deemed to be unstable.

"They're going to do some hopefully fly with some radar and pinpoint the areas that we need to be concerned about so we can be proactive. If there is an area that we need to get people out of, we can evacuate them beforehand," Olerud said.

A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew was launched from Sitka to assist, and the Coast Guard cutters Liberty and Anacapa have been ordered to make preparations to sail to Haines to provide additional support.

A 13.7-metre Coast Guard response boat has also been launched from Juneau.

Olerud said the situation was moving so quickly he couldn't provide a list of additional resources they may need.

"Prayers help. We can always take prayers. Those always work. We need a lot of those right now," Olerud told the Associated Press.

'All hands on deck' in nearby Skagway

Meanwhile, nearby Skagway, Alaska, has also been hit with stormy weather over the last few days that has caused damage there as well, said Mayor Andrew Cremata.

"Not only did you have all of this massive amount of melting wet snow, but on top of that you had rain. The two things happening back-to-back, compounded with really strong winds, has ... caused a significant amount of damage," Cremata said.

Though Cremata said the damage in Skagway is not as extensive as in Haines, there was a large mudslide on Dyea Road that caused "significant damage" to a roadway, but luckily caused no loss of human life or property.

There have also been trees knocked down, minor mudslides, and flooding in people's homes.

"Everyone who is capable is lending a hand ... It's a real 'all hands on deck' kind of moment. And we've also reached out to Haines, because they're only 10 miles away, to offer assistance for their rescue effort there."

"They're our neighbours, and we're going to offer whatever assistance we can."