Search and rescue teams in Haines still hopeful they’ll find missing residents alive

Jenae Larson on the porch of the Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines. Larson, a kindergarten teacher, is one of two Haines residents missing after a landslide Wednesday, Dec. 2. (Family of Jenae Larson)

Friday, 5 p.m. Update:

After a second full day of combing beaches and debris from a landslide for any sign of two missing Haines residents, search and rescue teams are still hopeful they’ll find the two alive.

Interim Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton says the tight-knit community is working together to respond to the disaster, but it’s a strain.

“Someone asked me earlier if I knew the two people missing and of course I know the two people missing,” she said. “One is one of my youngest daughters best friends and … it’s hard.”

The search for Jenae Larson and David Simmons was delayed at first light Friday because poor weather prevented search flights from taking off.

State geologists arrived on the ferry Friday morning. The team said their first priority is to find out which areas are stable enough to search, and which aren’t.

City officials say they’ve also had crews and equipment sent from Juneau, and they’ve heard from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office several times. The Minister of Transportation from the Yukon has also offered to send equipment.

Volunteers gathered Friday at the Haines Public Safety Building, which is being used as an Emergency Operations Center, said they’ll show up again on Saturday morning, waiting to be told what to do and where to go to continue to help.

At least 50 households have been evacuated so far.

Friday, 10:30 a.m. Update:

Light snow fell early Friday morning as the search continued for two Haines residents missing after a mudslide crashed through Beach Road homes.

Haines Fire Chief Al Giddings said over 100 volunteers have reported to the Public Safety building to aid in the search and community recovery. Two teams searched debris that washed onto miles of shoreline north of the slide. Juneau mountain rescue and two dog teams stood by at the slide site, waiting for the green light from geologists to begin the land search.

Meanwhile, Haines Harbor and the Coast Guard will be on the water.

“They’re going to start looking at the foot or the toe of the slide area. And they may have to pull them logs away to clear the feature area,” said Giddings.

A Coast Guard boat with four crew is scheduled to arrive in Haines Friday morning. The state geologists will arrive by ferry.

Original Story:

Searchers continued to look Thursday for two people still missing after a large landslide swept through the Beach Road residential area in Haines Wednesday afternoon, destroying at least four houses, Alaska State Troopers said.

Haines Mayor Douglas Olerud identified the two missing residents as Jenae Larson and David Simmons.

Juneau Mountain Rescue personnel and three dog teams planned to search with the help of geologists Thursday, along with the National Guard, Coast Guard and local volunteers.

David Simmons is the Executive Director of the Haines Economic Development Corporation and runs a shuttle business for tourists in the summer months.

RELATED: Alaska geologist says rainfall-induced landslides act like an ‘air hockey table’

Juneau Economic Development Council Executive Director Brian Holst said he’s worked closely with Simmons in recent months, helping the region weather the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. He said Simmons helped spearhead a drive to encourage Haines residents to shop locally and support struggling small businesses in town.

“David is a pleasure to work with, really smart, energetic, also doing some clever, some good work in Haines,” Holst said Thursday. “I know he’s a strong, capable person. So I just am holding out hope that all is well for him.”

David Simmons and partner Libby Jacobson at their home in Haines. Simmons is one of two Haines residents missing after a landslide on Wednesday, Dec. 2. (Family of David Simmons)

Jenae Larson is a “beloved kindergarten teacher” at Haines Elementary School, said Roy Getchell, superintendent of schools. She graduated from Haines High School in 2016 and was hired as a teacher by the school district this year.

“Our best hopes, wishes and prayers are with the responders and with the folks that they’re searching for, including Jenae,” Getchell said Thursday. “And we love her and want to see her come home for sure. She’s an amazing, amazing person.”

Heavy rains triggered a landslide in Haines on Wednesday, Dec. 2. (Jacob Cheeseman)

Witnesses have estimated the slide spans hundreds of feet across, leaving a muddy smear down the side of the mountain south of Haines.

RELATED: Around Southeast Alaska, communities assess damage from record-breaking storm

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on social media Thursday that he would issue a disaster declaration following the destructive landslides in the community.

“I have authorized Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe from the Department of Military & Veteran Affairs to declare a disaster for the Haines area,” he tweeted. “A signed Disaster Declaration will be issued shortly. More resources & assistance are on the way for the people of Haines.”

In a separate tweet, the governor said he’d been in touch with Haines officials.

“Every state resource will be made available to the people of Haines in their time of need,” he said via Twitter.

Searchers suspended operations late Wednesday as the slide continued to move, but recommenced at sunrise. Out of six people originally feared missing, four were accounted for by Thursday morning. Troopers said 9 feet of mud and trees covered the area. Surrounding homes were evacuated, as rubble from damaged houses drifted below in Lynn Canal.

“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 houses,” Haines Fire Chief Al Giddings said late Wednesday. “While we were on site, the ground began to rumble again like a locomotive.”

Record downpours brought at least 8 inches of rain within 48 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, and continued overnight. The heavy rain melted snowpack in the uplands, saturated the soil and contributed to the instability of the hillside.

RELATED: Landslides and rising water across Southeast as rain breaks records

Giddings erected a command center at the Public Safety Building in downtown Haines. He’s acted as incident commander to coordinate the effort as help comes from across the region, even as bad weather has hampered the arrival of some flights.

Salvation Army Captain Kevin Woods spent Wednesday helping evacuees find shelter. That’s after his road washed out and a neighbor picked up him and his wife 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 were as many as 20 hotel rooms occupied by displaced residents. 

State transportation road crews actively worked to repair the highway and keep supplies flowing. Dozens of roads were damaged or obstructed by flooding and fallen trees.

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

A landslide on a rainy mountainside
A landslide in Haines Dec. 3, 2020. (1st Lt. David Marshall/Alaska Army National Guard)

This is a breaking story, check back for updates.

KHNS reporter Henry Leasia contributed to this report from Haines, Alaska Public Media editor Julia O’Malley contributed from Anchorage, CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resneck contributed from Juneau.