In this image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard is the aftermath of a landslide in Wrangell, Alaska on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (U.S. Coast Guard photo via AP)

In this image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard is the aftermath of a landslide in Wrangell, Alaska on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (U.S. Coast Guard photo via AP)

Girl dead, woman rescued, 5 missing after landslide hits isolated Alaska fishing community

The slide — estimated to be about 450 feet wide — occurred at about 9 p.m. Monday during a significant rain- and windstorm near Wrangell

  • By BECKY BOHRER, MARK THIESSEN and JOHN RABY Associated Press
  • Tuesday, November 21, 2023 6:21pm
  • NewsState News

JUNEAU — A landslide that ripped down a sopping, heavily forested mountainside in Southeast Alaska killed a girl, injured a woman and left five other people missing as it smashed into three homes in a remote fishing community, authorities said Tuesday.

Crews resorted to a cadaver-sniffing dog and heat-sensing drones to search for those still unaccounted for hours after the disaster, while the Coast Guard and other vessels looked along the oceanfront, which was littered with debris from the landslide.

The slide — estimated to be about 450 feet wide — occurred at about 9 p.m. Monday during a significant rain- and windstorm near Wrangell, an island community of 2,000 residents some 155 miles south of Juneau.

Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Austin McDaniel said at a news briefing that three adults and two children were missing and that a girl was found dead during a quick search Monday night. Authorities said they did not immediately know the girl’s age.

Crews on Tuesday morning rescued a woman who had been on the upper floor of a home that was struck, McDaniel said. She was in good condition and undergoing medical care.

The slide scoured the mountainside, leaving a scar of barren earth from near the top of the peak down to the ocean, wiping out large evergreen trees and leaving what appeared to be remnants of homes in its wake. One of the three homes that was struck was unoccupied, McDaniel said.

A geologist from the state transportation department was flown in from Juneau, the state capital, and conducted a preliminary assessment, clearing some areas of the debris field for ground searches to begin.

Officials posted on Facebook that a local food bank was accepting donations and offered a community gathering place at a 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.

The landslide buried a highway and cut off access and power to approximately 75 homes. Boats evacuated 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 initially possible because the site was unstable and hazardous.

“Our community is resilient,” Wrangell interim borough manager Mason Villarma told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “And it always comes together for tragedies like this. We’re broken, but resilient and determined to find everybody that’s missing.”

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 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, added agency spokesperson Jeremy Zidek.

Troopers also warned of the threat of possible additional landslides in the area after a day of stormy weather marked by high winds and rain. 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 of rain between 1 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday, with wind gusts up to 60 mph 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.

Rainfall amounts like what Wrangell received Monday are not unusual, Jacobs said, but strong winds could have helped trigger the slide.

Saturated soil can give way when gusts blow trees on a slope, said Barrett Salisbury, a geologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

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 of mud and trees covering city streets.

More in News

Alaska Department of Fish and Game logo. (Graphic by Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Board of Fisheries approves Kenai River king salmon action plan

The plan adds bait restrictions for in-river fisheries, doubles the sport bag limit for sockeye salmon, and adds a swath of restrictions to the commercial setnet fishery

The Kenai Municipal Airport is seen on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
New Grant Aviation planes to double service’s flight capacity

The first of two Cessna 208B EX Grand Caravans will start transporting passengers on Monday

Stickers are available for voters at the Kenai No. 1 precinct for Election Day on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna to hold ‘I Voted’ sticker design contest

City council members approved the program during their Wednesday night meeting

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, speaks in support of a bill increasing state funds for public education in the Alaska House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Bill seeking to bump use of Alaska Performance Scholarship clears the House with unanimous support

The money is awarded to high-performing high school graduates to help pay for postsecondary education at participating institutions in Alaska

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Ryan Anderson answers questions from state senators during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
State officials working to meet Friday deadline for revised transportation plan

The federal government rejected the plan on Feb. 9, citing numerous deficiencies

Travis Every, top left, speaks in support of fishing opportunity for the east side setnet fishery before the State Board of Fisheries at the Egan Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Local fishers talk conservation, opportunity before Board of Fisheries in Anchorage

Local fishers from the Kenai Peninsula traveled to Anchorage this weekend to… Continue reading

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, presents information on a bill establishing a voluntary buyback program for Cook Inlet’s east side setnet fishery on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Bjorkman bill would pay bonuses to nationally certified teachers

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development estimates that the bonus program would apply to about 215 of Alaska’s estimated 7,315 teachers — about 3%

Alaska senators meet with members of the media to discuss education legislation after a press conference by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on the topic on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Dunleavy threatens veto of education bill if more of his priorities aren’t added

It is not certain there would be the 40 votes necessary to override a veto by the governor

A map displays a wide-ranging special weather statement, published Tuesday by the National Weather Service, covering Southcentral Alaska. (Map courtesy of National Weather Service)
Strong winds, low wind chills forecast through Friday

Wind chills over night may reach as low as -20 to -40 degrees in much of Southcentral

Most Read