Heavy rains in Southeast Alaska block key roads on Prince of Wales Island

Thorne Bay resident Sam Sawyer says he was heading into Klawock for a doctor’s appointment when he came across a landslide blocking state highway 929 near Black Bear Creek Monday. (Photo: Sam Sawyer)

Heavy rains toppled trees and buried roads on Prince of Wales Island Monday. Local and state transportation crews are responding to at least seven landslides blocking roads on the Southeast Alaska island.

Big Salt Lake Road is the only road connecting small communities on the island’s north and east sides with the larger cities of Craig and Klawock.

Sam Sawyer said he was heading from his home in Thorne Bay to a doctor’s appointment in Klawock when he came upon a mass of dirt and timber making the road impassable.

“It didn’t look like it was really that bad of a slide until I walked up on it,” Sawyer said via phone Monday.

He says the slide was near Black Bear Creek, about five miles northeast of the Klawock airport on state highway 929, also known as Big Salt Lake or Boundary Road.

“I could hear a lot of water flowing over the center of the — center of the slide, which I couldn’t see due to all the trees that were blocking my — blocking my view. But I tried walking towards the center of it to see if I could see if anybody had gotten caught in it or anything like that. And within the first couple steps, I sank down in mud up to my knees. So I backed — I got out of there,” he said.

It’s one of three slides on the highway linking eastern and western Prince of Wales, state transportation officials said. Another, smaller slide near milepost 8 and the Klawock Airport was partially cleared Monday morning, local officials say. That allowed motorists caught between to return to Klawock. State transportation reported responding to a third slide near Klawock, though little information is available on that incident.

Local officials are also asking residents to conserve water.

“Our reservoir is flooded,” said Klawock Mayor Donald Nickerson, Jr.

He said inflows to the city’s reservoir have overwhelmed the water treatment plant, prompting the city to shut it down.

A wide river surges with spuce trees in the background
Klawock Mayor Donald Nickerson, Jr. said the city’s drinking water reservoir overflowed Monday. Local officials asked residents to conserve water. (Photo: Donald Nickerson, Jr.)

“I’ve never seen the dam like that before, so I’m really worried about it. I’m just hoping there’s no damage to the dam. That’s our only water resource we have for Klawock,” he said.

Officials in the western Prince of Wales community of Craig say another three landslides are blocking traffic on Port St. Nicholas Road south of town. Local officials are asking motorists to avoid the road until it’s cleared. Brian Templin is coordinating the local response in Craig.

“We’re asking folks not to self-dispatch. We’ll probably need a lot of help to get the slides cleared. But it’s much more helpful if we request help or know that the folks are coming rather than having folks simply show up on scene,” he said Monday.

The National Weather Service reported a little more than 1.5 inches of rain in and winds between 5 and 10 miles per hour with gusts up to 30 Monday morning in Craig. Klawock’s airport has seen upwards of 3 inches since noon Sunday, meteorologists said.

It had forecast periods of heavy rain with two to four inches possible for the panhandle.

Juneau-based meteorologist Kimberly Vaughan said it could have been worse, as the latest weather system to hit the region did not bring strong winds.

“You know, a good recipe for landslides is a wind shift, strong winds — they’re rattling the trees and then you’ve got soil that’s already compromised due to being so saturated. So we at least didn’t have the combination going on to facilitate potentially even more mudslides,” she said via phone.

And a Department of Transportation spokesperson says state crews are responding to a seventh slide near mile 15 of North Prince of Wales Road south of the Coffman Cove turnoff. No injuries have been reported in Monday’s incidents.

UPDATE Tuesday, 9:30 a.m.: All seven landslides have been at least partially cleared, and Big Salt Lake Road, North Prince of Wales Road and Port St. Nicholas Road are all passable. State transportation crews are continuing cleanup operations Tuesday, and Craig officials are asking motorists to avoid Port St. Nicholas Road as mop-up operations there continue. Craig City Administrator Jon Bolling thanked local residents, businesses and Craig’s federally-recognized tribe for their help in the cleanup effort.

With additional reporting from KFSK’s Joe Viechnicki in Petersburg