Record rainfall has Southeast Alaska grappling with damage, destruction

This photo provided by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities shows damage from heavy rains and a mudslide 600 feet wide in Haines, Alaska, on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Matt Boron/Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities via AP)

Joaqlin Estus

‘We’re doing the best that we can to help everybody’

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Heavy rain and comparatively warm weather in Alaska has two people missing, and scores of people displaced from their damaged or destroyed homes while others are working to open essential roads and pile up sandbags to prevent further flooding.

A dozen communities in Southeast Alaska have reported mudslides, flooding, and washed out or blocked roads and bridges. Several have had record amounts of rainfall. Considering Southeast Alaska is in a temperate rainforest and gets 90 to 120 inches of annual rain annually, that’s saying a lot.

Hardest hit is Haines, which is at the end of a fjord on the northern end of the islands that make up the “Panhandle.” It got 10 inches of rain in two days, according to Newsbreak. Melting snow added to the saturation.

On Wednesday, flooding and a series of landslides wreaked havoc. A landslide about 600 feet across and nine feet deep destroyed four homes and damaged several others in the town of about 2,500, according to KHNS Radio. Thirty people had to be evacuated and two people are missing. At least 50 people have been displaced by other mudslides and flooding. They’re staying in local hotels, with friends or relatives, or at their workplaces. Many left their home only with the clothes they were wearing.

Haines is a major gateway to Alaska. People driving from the lower 48 arrive by ferry in either Skagway or Haines then take the Alaska Highway north through Canada to Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Kenai Peninsula. That one road is now blocked by landslides. Haines is otherwise only accessible by boat or aircraft.

Mudslides blocked roads to the airport, the ferry terminal and barge landing, and the one road out of town. That left Haines accessible only by small boat and helicopters. The town’s power source is a diesel generator. The Alaska Department of Transportation has cleared the road to open the town’s freight dock for fuel deliveries. Crews have cleared other essential roadways but ask people to stay home because the risk of more landslides remains high.

Help has poured into the town from as far away as Anchorage, 750 miles to the north in Southcentral Alaska, and numerous Southeast communities, including Juneau, 100 miles south of Haines.

Tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association Harriet Brouillette said, “We're doing the best that we can to help everybody. Right now what the tribe has done is we're offering generators and pumps so that folks can pump out their basements. But the difficult thing right now is that people can't go back to their houses. It's not safe. So… we're just trying to help any way that we can.” She said the tribe has offered clothing and food.

And, “yesterday I just went to the store and bought up as many toothbrushes, hair brushes, shampoo, the razors and deodorant and all of those sorts of things. And, I left them at the American Legion [Hall] so that anyone who has been displaced, can have access to those sorts of items.”

Two Coast Guard cutters arrived from Sitka, the National Guard sent troops, and State Troopers are on the ground. A search and rescue team from Juneau, with search dogs, arrived to help search for the missing persons. The team has been limited, however, by unsafe conditions. The saturated ground is still unstable. State geologists have arrived to evaluate areas where slides have already occurred and where mountainsides ominously loom over the narrow valley town.

Brouillette said the regional tribal entity Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has been “amazing.”

“They filled this boat, a landing craft, with generators and pumps and socks, sweatsuits, you know, those sorts of things that people are in need of,” Brouillette said. “And, they have sent one piece of heavy equipment and are hoping to be able to get some additional equipment here.

“As far as that goes, I just can't thank Tlingit and Haida enough. They have been beyond generous. They sent their staff here to help us with coordination and they have additional staff showing up [Friday],” Brouillette said.

Parts of the town are on boil water orders. The sewage system in parts of town is flooded and unable to treat all sewage for discharge.

On top of the hardships from the pandemic, Brouillette said the added stress is nearly overwhelming.

“I think it has affected a lot of the people emotionally, psychologically…[Haines is] such a small community that the devastation is felt by everybody here,” Bouillette said. “It's been dreadful, devastating, and it's hard to hold up for community members when there are so many people who are being affected in a negative way by what has happened here.”

She said it’s also difficult to anticipate how the town will become whole again. The state has sent geologists to help determine where and when it will be safe to access high risk areas.

“I think that it's going to be awhile before we really know the extent of the damage that was done, and unfortunately we're into December,” Bouillette said. “So that means we have a little bit of a break from freezing temperatures now, but you know, in a number of days it's going to start snowing again. And what does that mean for us? What does that mean for repairs? You know, what does that mean for stabilization?”

She said, “we're trying to think long-term, and you know, what are the long term effects going to be? And I think that, you know, it's going to be prep, cleaning up property damage, fixing driveways, making sure people have access to clean water, making sure that septic systems and sewer systems are in good working order.”

Other communities have reported damage. Several neighborhoods in Juneau also have experienced serious landslides and flooding.

The rain let up on Thursday but the forecast calls for rain and snow through the coming weekend.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today. Based in Anchorage, Alaska, she is a longtime journalist. Follow her on Twitter @estus_m or email her at jestus@indiancountrytoday.com.

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