By Sage Smiley, KYUK and Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

A fatal landslide at roughly Mile 11 of the Zimovia Highway near Wrangell, seen from the air on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (Courtesy Sunrise Aviation)

Three are dead – two adults and one minor under 18 – and at least three people are missing after a large landslide destroyed three houses and covered the highway about 11 miles outside of Wrangell last night. 

According to the Department of Public Safety, troopers think that two juveniles and one adult are still missing in the slide area. 

One woman was rescued from the landslide area this morning and was reported in good condition while receiving medical care by state officials Tuesday afternoon. 

Alaska State Trooper spokesperson Austin McDaniel said Tuesday that troopers and other local, state and federal crews are still looking for survivors.

“This is very much still a search and rescue operation,” McDaniel said. “We are approaching it with that in mind and I know that all of our teams on the ground are looking at it with the same lens.”

The names of the deceased, the survivor, and the missing have not been made public.

Search and rescue efforts, including K9 teams from SEA Dogs in Juneau, resumed this afternoon after geologists determined parts of the slide area were stable. 

But state geologist Barrett Salisbury said the rainy forecast means that stable areas could still shift more.

“It looks like there’s a lot of moisture in the next week and that’s not a great forecast for being in and around that area,” he said.

The slide — which was about 500 feet wide where it crossed the road — also cut power to many homes and forced evacuations along the Zimovia Highway.

Local officials urged between 20 and 30 people living near the landslide, between 11 Mile and 13 Mile Zimovia Highway, to evacuate the area with the help of the local fire department and water taxis. 

Officials advise to not go past Six Mile at the Mill site.

Evacuees are being housed in the Stikine Inn. 

In the 24-hour period before the slide, Wrangell recorded 3.08 inches of rain at the airport, according to the National Weather Service Office in Juneau. That’s heavy rainfall, but not abnormal for this time of year in Southeast Alaska. 

But that rainfall also came with extremely strong winds, with gusts over 70 mph recorded on Zarembo Island.  

Salisbury says heavy rains can increase the already-present risk of landslides in Southeast Alaska. 

“It’s virtually impossible to predict this kind of catastrophe,” Salisbury said. “But we do know that the risk of landslides, specifically this type known as a debris flow, is present throughout Southeast Alaska where we have steep slopes. We know that heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt putting lots of moisture into the soil makes those risks greater.”

Salisbury said people in the area should be on high alert for sounds of rumbling or cracking trees, new springs of water, or physical changes to houses or property like swelling ground or shifting porches or foundations. 

Zimovia Highway has been closed to the public from 6-Mile on, with the exception of local access. There’s no timeline for when people who live beyond the landslide might be able to return home. 

There’s also no update on when power might be restored for approximately 75 homes without between 9 Mile and the end of Wrangell’s highway.

Wrangell Public Schools are canceled tomorrow but Evergreen Elementary School will be open between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. to offer support services. 

There’s been an outpouring of community support from local congregations, organizations and businesses. Donations for evacuees are accepted by Wrangell Parks & Recreation at the Community Center.

Mason Villarma, Wrangell’s interim borough manager, said behavioral health services are available for community members. The phone number is 1-877-294-0074.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration Tuesday morning to support the response and recovery.

Shannon McCarthy, with Alaska Department of Transportation, said that it could take up to two weeks to clear the debris from the road, however the main focus at the moment is search and rescue.

Any missing persons unaccounted for in the slide area should be reported to Wrangell Police at 907-874-3304.