Gov. Walker visits Sitka, meets with families of those presumed dead

Governor Bill Walker was in Sitka today to assess the damage from a series of landslides that hit the city after heavy rains Tuesday (August 18). He also met with the families of three people missing since Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, the search for the three men was proceeding slowly, hampered by fears of further landslides.

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Gov. Walker visited Sitka a day after the fatal landslides. Photo: Governor's office.
Gov. Walker visited Sitka a day after the fatal landslides. Photo: Governor’s office.

Walker arrived in Sitka early Wednesday morning and flew over the affected areas in a Coast Guard helicopter.

But, he said, it wasn’t until he was standing on the edge of the Kramer Avenue landslide — where trees are stacked 15 feet high and there’s a blank space on the hillside where a house used to be — that the scale of destruction came home to him.

“I mean, the size of the logs, they showed me a picture of the house before. I mean it was a substantial, significant size house…the devastation was just amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Three men are missing and presumed dead after a river of mud and debris wiped out a house and much of the road on Kramer Avenue, a new neighborhood about three miles from downtown Sitka. Walker said it reminded him of the scene in Valdez after the 1964 earthquake, and said he was “overwhelmed.”

“I’ve been governor about nine months now. I’ve prided myself by saying I’ve never had a bad day. Well. I can’t say that anymore. This is a really tough day. So.”

In a Tweet, Gov. Walker thanked local EMS responders for their efforts. Photo: Governor's office.
In a Tweet, Gov. Walker thanked local EMS responders for their efforts. Photo: Governor’s office.

Walker also met with the families of the missing men. All three were involved in construction in the neighborhood. William Stortz, age 62, is Sitka’s building official. He was inspecting the site Tuesday morning. Brothers Ulises and Elmer Diaz, ages 25 and 26, were working on one of the houses.

Meeting with family and friends of the Diaz brothers at Sitka’s Grace Harbor Church, Walker said he shared their frustration that search efforts aren’t happening faster. The area around the landslide remains unstable, and search teams have been held up by concerns about more landslides.

During a news conference with the Governor at Sitka’s Fire Hall, City Administrator Mark Gorman, choked up as he spoke about the three missing men — and Sitka’s response. Hundreds of Sitkans have signed up to volunteer in the search, or have dropped off food for those working on the search and evacuated from their homes.

“And what I found in the last 24 hours is heart-wrenching and it’s about community. William is a friend of many years, a…the Diaz boys grew up with my sons. And this is what this is about today. It’s about hurt and caring in our community…At the same time, I offer my profound gratitude to this community. It’s been a remarkably humbling experience to see the act of care and giving that is universal in Sitka. This is what this town is about.”

Gorman was echoed by Fire Chief Dave Miller. Miller said he’s worked with the Sitka Fire Department for about 28 years.

“And I think yesterday was, um, one of the hardest days of my life. When I had to talk to those family members and say, I am so sorry. First for what happened, and then that we are not allowing those teams to go in and start looking for your family members. The thing we have to worry about is, the safety of all the others, too.”

Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell said she’s not yet ready to give up hope.

“It’s been a sad time, but there’s still people that have hope. And that’s the important thing that I think a lot of us need to keep in mind, is that, miracles do happen. And there are family members and friends that are hanging onto that, and I support that. You just never know. So we’re hopeful. And I’m going to stay that way until it just doesn’t make sense to be that way.”

Sitka has requested that the Governor declare a state of emergency, which would open up access to state funds for the response. Walker said the request is his staff’s top priority, and would be answered as soon as possible.