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Haines marks deadly landslide anniversary with full recovery still years away

Published: Dec. 6, 2021 at 10:06 AM AKST
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HAINES, Alaska (KTUU) - One year after a deadly landslide and devastating winter storms hit Haines, dozens of residents gathered on a bluebird day to pause and reflect.

Two people died from the landslide that still cuts an enormous scar across Beach Road. Neither of their bodies have been recovered.

At the Haines Harbor, kindergarten teacher Jenae Larson was remembered with songs and prayer. Her family is raising funds to build a new playground at the school and rename it in her honor.

David Simmons, who worked for a local economic development organization, was also remembered. Bespoke benches are being built by school students to honor both of them. They’ll be installed at Picture Point.

“To soak in our surroundings and give thanks that we live in such a beautiful place, surrounded by so many caring people,” said Haines Mayor Douglas Olerud on Saturday.

The caring people of Haines are remembered by Paul Graf. He lives on the side of the landslide away from town and was evacuated after the road was destroyed. He was displaced for four months before the road could be rebuilt and was given food, clothes, cash and a place to stay in Haines.

“It was just overwhelming,” Graf said about the kindness of his neighbors. “It was absolutely overwhelming the assistance that I got, to the point that I was turning people away, I couldn’t accept anything else.”

There are multiple ongoing studies to see the risks of another slide. Final reports are expected later this month and in early January.

“What we’re trying to ascertain is, how prevalent are these going to be moving forward?” Olerud said.

Graf lives less than half a mile from the landslide area near the water. As the snow melted last spring and water cascaded down the mountain, it was hard not to think about the risks.

“Crossing the slide every day to go to work, early on, it was pretty nerve-wracking,” Graf said.

Last December, a record 10 inches of rain fell in two days. Since then, every downpour has been traumatic for some in Haines.

“Every time we’ve had heavy rainfall, you can see it,” Olerud said. “You can hear it from a lot of people because they don’t know what it’s going to bring.”

Sally Garton has spent 15 years in Haines, and was planning to live the rest of her life there, but she didn’t feel safe after the storm.

“I couldn’t deal with the stress and panic of everything that happened,” she said.

Garton has not been alone in leaving Haines. She moved to North Pole, but has been back to visit. It has been hard.

“I miss it. I miss it terribly,” she said.

Garton is not the only person displaced by the storms. Residents from seven households are still not back in their homes 12 months later.

Hundreds of homes were damaged across the Chilkat Valley by the record rainfall, and dozens still need to be repaired. There had been 131 households seeking assistance after the storms — now, it’s down to 66.

“We’re making progress, but there’s still a long ways to go,” Olerud said.

He explained that while 66 homes may not sound like a lot, in a community of 2,500 people, it is significant.

Over $1.3 million has been distributed to residents in need. Some homes now only need relatively minor help, while others have been gutted and need major repairs.

Sylvia Heinz, coordinator of the Haines Long Term Recovery Group, has been part of a volunteer team helping lead the efforts to rebuild. She says “significant progress” has been made each month, but there are limits to what can be done.

“The needs of our residents are much larger than our resources,” she said, explaining that there are eight homes that still have issues with their foundations.

“I got an estimate last week of $60,000 for one of them,” Heinz said. “We don’t have that. No one has that.”

Lemmie Spradlin is in her 80s and has been displaced for the past year. Her house flooded during last December’s storms, and despite the best efforts of crews, it stayed flooded for months.

She has been living in a converted garage on her property as volunteers work to rebuild. On Saturday, she sat by a fire at Picture Point and hugged members of Team Rubicon, an aid organization that specializes in disaster relief that came to Haines to help.

When the snow melts in the spring, construction season will pick up again. For the borough, attention will turn to infrastructure across the Chilkat Valley that was damaged by the storm.

Flooding caused deep cracks on multiple roads down to the water line. Olerud said sand was hastily thrown down to ensure the pipes wouldn’t freeze in the winter, but it was always intended to be temporary. He explained that work will be done, starting in May, for a more permanent fix, and lessons have been learned how to be better prepared for the next disaster.

Graf feels better prepared. He moved back home months before electricity was reconnected across the landslide area. He got a generator from the Salvation Army and hooked up his own battery-powered electrical system, and says he could live comfortably for 72 hours if the power goes out.

Despite the risks of living in the shadow of a mountain that has recently slid, he wants to live there as long as possible.

“And as far as property values go, it’s worthless,” Graf said. “Who’s going to buy it now?”

The recovery efforts are expected to take up to a decade; The emotional recovery is running on a similar timeline.

“A lot of us are still in that trauma situation,” Olerud said. “‘Cause it’s an everyday thing, you really haven’t had a break from it.”

During Saturday’s emotional ceremony, a large crowd gathered at Picture Point. It’s a spot that overlooks the town with steep, snowcapped mountains and the devastation caused by the landslide.

A wooden table was unveiled and dedicated to the small Southeast town, engraved with the words, “Haines stay strong.” There were hotdogs, hot chocolate and coffee shared around it as neighbors hugged each other after a difficult year.

“It signifies our coming together around the table,” Olerud said. “And all contributing to the healing of our community.”

Donations to help Haines rebuild can be made to the Chilkat Valley Community Relief Fund at the following link.

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