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Regional backup to join Haines first responders in search after mudslides

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Officials in Haines say six people are feared missing after record-breaking rainfall triggered a massive mudslide that destroyed houses along Beach Road a mile south of the Southeast community’s downtown core. Reinforcements are arriving Thursday to help with the search and recovery effort.

Haines Fire Chief Al Giddings led around two dozen rescue volunteers along Beach Road where a landslide may have taken out as many as four houses Wednesday afternoon.

“The side of the mountain has completely pushed them down to the waterline and into the water. The water was full of debris from pieces of the house. While we were on site the ground began to rumble again, like a locomotive,” he said.

That sound of earth and mud coming loose caused the rescue party to pull back. Meanwhile, a hastily organized effort between Alaska State Troopers, two Coast Guard cutters and local first responders worked to get a number of displaced residents to safety as darkness fell along the beach at Portage Cove.

“We have unconfirmed, possible six people that are unaccounted for. But two confirmed that are unaccounted for. So that’s all we have right now. And we’re gonna—we’re not losing hope,” Giddings said.

Record downpours brought eight inches of rain in a span of 48 hours from Tuesday to Wednesday. The heavy rain melted snowpack in the uplands and saturated the soil which contributed to the instability of the hillside.

Governor Mike Dunleavy sent thoughts and prayers along with “assets from the Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska National Guard,” according to an evening statement sent to reporters. Giddings says a mountain rescue team and up to eight members of Juneau’s Capital City Fire Rescue were activated, as were personnel from Sitka, Skagway and other communities.

Giddings erected a command center Wednesday night at the Public Safety Building in downtown Haines. He’s acting as incident commander to coordinate the effort as help arrives from across the region.

“We’ve got to make spaces for them,” Giddings said.

“We have to get the supplies for them food water facilities, so that they can stay here at the station.”

He says rescuers plan to resume the search at dawn.

“(At) first light of the morning, the Pave Hawk helicopter will conduct an air search using their infrared indicator. They said that they can pick up a porcupine in the middle of a wooded forest. And they’re also going to get the 2,000 foot view of the actual slide itself. Once they land here in Haines,  we’re going to go ahead and put together an action plan to put boots on the ground and start a formal search,” Giddings said.

Salvation Army Captain Kevin Woods spent Wednesday helping evacuees from the mudslides find shelter. That’s after his road washed out and a neighbor picked him and his wife up from along the highway.

“We worked on getting people in motels, and getting some food and some dry clothes and just making them as comfortable as possible,” he said.

Woods estimates there are as many as 20 hotel rooms occupied by displaced residents.

A mobile canteen — a specialized disaster vehicle — is on its way from Juneau to help feed those affected by the natural disaster.

“With the canteen we’ll be able to have a spot close to wherever they’re working at in the slide areas. So we can have coffee and water and food right there close. So they don’t have to leave and go across town to grab a bite to eat or something,” Woods said.

State transportation road crews are actively working to repair the highway and keep supplies flowing.  Witnesses have estimated the slide spans hundreds of feet across. It’s a muddy smear down the side of the mountain south of Haines. Rubble from homes can be seen drifting in Lynn Canal below.

The National Weather Service forecasts a mix of rain and snow for the rest of the week.