JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — One person has died and at least seven others are believed missing after a large landslide ripped down a mountain near a remote community in southeast Alaska during the night, authorities said Tuesday. Three homes were in the direct path of the landslide and authorities were using a cadaver-sniffing dog and heat-sensing drones to search for any additional victims.
The slide — estimated to be about 450 feet (137 meters) wide — occurred about 9 p.m. Monday near Wrangell, a small fishing community of just over 2,000 residents located on an island about 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of Juneau.
A preliminary survey determined three homes were in the direct path of the slide, and first responders started a quick search for survivors, Alaska State Troopers said in a statement.
“The body of one deceased individual was located during the hasty search. Multiple individuals are believed to have been within the slide area when the landslide occurred and are believed to be missing,” the statement added.
People were urged to contact the local police if they know of anyone missing.
Phone service appeared to be down for the remote community, but officials posted on Facebook that a local food bank was accepting donations and offered a community gathering place at a local bakery. “Our hearts are heavy and our thoughts are with those suffering due to last night’s events,” officials wrote on Wrangell’s Facebook page.
Pictures posted on social media show the extent of damage. The slide scoured the mountainside, leaving barren earth from near the top of the mountain to the ocean, wiping out a swath of large evergreen trees and leaving what appeared to be remnants of homes in its wake.
The landslide cut off access and power to approximately 75 homes, and boats have been taking residents from the cut-off area to the unaffected part of town, according to the state emergency management office.
Troopers said a large-scale search and rescue mission wasn’t immediately possible because the site is unstable and hazardous. A state geologist would first have to assess the site to ensure conditions were safe before proceeding, they said.
Wrangell interim borough manager Mason Villarma told The Associated Press in a phone interview that at least seven people are believed missing after at least two homes were hit directly.
“Our community is resilient. And it always comes together for tragedies like this. We’re broken, but resilient and determined to find everybody that’s missing,” Villarma said.
Villarma said a staff briefing was held with city employees, and the geological expert had arrived from Juneau.
“Parts of the slide have been opened for search and rescue professionals, but in limited spots,” Villarma said. “Currently there’s two of them that are able to work in those areas with a cadaver dog. And there was also heat-sensing drones, so those are operational.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for Wrangell, saying he and his wife were praying for all those affected.
“Rose and I are heartbroken by this disaster and we pray for the safety of all those on site and offer all the resources our state has available,” he said in a statement on social media.
The state transportation department said that a drone expert and heavy equipment operator also were dispatched to Wrangell. The state’s emergency management division also planned to send someone to Wrangell to determine what the community’s needs are, said agency spokesperson Jeremy Zidek.
Troopers also warned that additional landslides were possible in the area. They urged people caught on the other side of the slide, away from Wrangell, to evacuate by water taxi. A shelter has been established.
Wrangell received about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain between 1 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday, with wind gusts up to 60 mph (96 kph) at higher elevations, said Aaron Jacobs, a hydrologist and meteorologist with the National Weather Service 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 Juneau — and rainfall with minor flooding to areas further south. Landslides also were reported in the Ketchikan area and on Prince of Wales Island, he said.
Another storm system is expected in the Wrangell area late Wednesday into Thursday.
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. 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.
In December 2020, torrential rains prompted a landslide in another southeast Alaska city, claiming two lives. The 200-yard-wide slide slammed into a neighborhood in the community of Haines, leaving about 9 feet (2.7 meters) of mud and trees covering city streets.
Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska, and Raby from Charleston, West Virginia.