‘We live in limbo’: Haines residents displaced by landslide seek path to return home

Two people wwalk through an avvalanche shoot up a mountain
Amber Winkel (left) and Todd Winkel (right) make their way across the Beach Road landslide in order to check on their home. (Henry Leasia/KHNS)

State and local officials in Haines are hiring a consultant to assess ongoing hazards caused by a landslide that swept across Beach Road. Meanwhile, some displaced residents say they’re still cut off from their properties and in the dark about what comes next.

Todd and Amber Winkel walked past a roadblock and up a snowy hill, to where December’s slide came down across Beach Road, killing two people, destroying three homes and forcing dozens of residents to evacuate.

They’re checking their property on foot. Debris still blocks the road, and homes have been cut off from the power grid.

We have to carry gas cans across. Our neighbors in their seventies have to walk this,” Winkel said. “We have people without vehicles, people staying in small apartments — real small apartments that they aren’t used to. And no schedule, no plan.”

Todd Winkel said that without electricity and road access, he and his neighbors struggle to return to their homes and keep them from deteriorating.

The Haines Borough erected barriers to block access to the slide area on Beach Road. (Henry Leasia/KHNS)

The Haines Borough closed the 2,000 foot stretch of Beach Road affected by the slide due to safety concerns. Initially, it threatened to prosecute anyone entering the closed area. After meeting with residents, Mayor Douglas Olerud decided that Beach Road residents may cross — but only at their own risk.

Winkel, like many other Beach Road residents, wants to clear a path for a temporary road to make access easier and safer. Over the past month, homeowners have made trips by boat and on foot to maintain their property, collect belongings, or just spend the night in their own bed.

“We’re putting people at risk every time we try and do stuff out here. We’re not doing it the safest way we possibly can, because they won’t allow us to punch a road,” Winkel said. “We have to figure out the least risky way to help these people return to their lives and help them save their property. Doing nothing is not an acceptable answer.”

Local contractors say they’re up to the task and have offered to do the work for free.

The Haines Borough and Alaska Department of Transportation are contracting a geotechnical engineering consultant to assess the landslide hazard and see if a temporary road is even feasible.

Aerial surveys of the slide revealed a large crack in the hillside above Beach Road. During a meeting to update Beach Road residents last week, Deanne Stevens with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys said there are still questions about the kind of risk it poses.

“At this point, with the little bit of data that we have, we can’t say if it’s towards the smaller end of the possible spectrum or towards the larger end. We also don’t know if it does fail, what’s the actual nature of how it will fail? Which way will it tip if it goes? Will it go down the same route as the Beach Road slide or will it go off to the south?” Stevens said.

Todd Winkel uses a sled to haul belongings from his home on Beach Road. (Henry Leasia/KHNS)

Over the next few months, the plan is to have the consultant develop a report on the slide area to inform decisions about restoring road access, re-occupying homes and resuming the search for two residents swept by the slide and who have yet to be found.

Many Beach Road residents say they’re frustrated by a lack of communication from officials charged with making crucial decisions about the future of their homes. Winkel said he doesn’t know what the criteria is for determining when their neighborhood is safe again.

“We’ve already been told it’s unsafe, and we know that there is a crack in the ground up there. From our perspective if you know there is something unsafe, you don’t study it for a year while people are crossing underneath it. You take mitigative actions and you take care of the risk. Our concern is that we could study this thing forever and still never be able to say it’s safe, and what have we gained?” Winkel said. “In the meantime, we live in limbo.”

Department of Transportation officials said the consultant will complete the first phase of its fieldwork in about six weeks. At that point, information may be available to help the borough make a decision about temporary road access for vehicles.