A landslide in Alaska has killed at least three people and left three others missing after it ripped down a heavily forested mountainside in southeast Alaska and smashed into three homes in a remote fishing community.
The large landslide hit the residences near the city of Wrangell at around 9pm local time on Monday, leaving one woman injured. Members of emergency services found the body of a girl in an initial search and late on Tuesday, the bodies of two adults were found by a drone operator.
Crews resorted to a cadaver-sniffing dog and heat-sensing drones to search for two children and one adult who remained unaccounted for hours after the disaster. The ages of the children were not released.
At least three homes were hit by the landslide, said Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Austin McDaniel, adding that the rescued woman had been on the upper floor of a home that was struck. She was in good condition and receiving medical care.
“Right now, the major focus is on search and rescue,” said Mark Roberts, the state homeland security division incident commander.
The slide – estimated to be about 137m wide – occurred during a significant rain and windstorm near Wrangell, an island community of 2,000 residents some 250km south of Juneau.
The slide down the mountainside left a scar of barren earth from near the top of the peak down to the ocean, wiping out large evergreen trees and leaving what appeared to be remnants of homes in its wake.
Such landslides are known as “debris flows” and pose a threat due to the steep slopes in southeastern Alaska, which is further increased during heavy rain, explained state Department of Natural Resources geologist Barrett Salisbury.
“The debris flow occurs when the soil becomes so saturated it no longer has the strength to hold itself in place,” he told NBC News.
A geologist from the state transportation department was flown in from Juneau and conducted a preliminary assessment, clearing some areas of the debris field for ground searches to begin.The landslide buried a highway and cut off access and power to approximately 75 homes. Boats evacuated residents from the cut-off area to the unaffected part of town, according to the state emergency management office.
A large-scale search and rescue mission wasn’t initially possible because the site was unstable and hazardous, said the troopers.
Governor Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for Wrangell, saying he and his wife were praying for the community.“Rose and I are heartbroken by this disaster and we pray for the safety of all those on site and offer all the resources our state has available,” he said in a statement on social media.
Troopers also warned of the threat of possible additional landslides in the area after a day of stormy weather marked by high winds and rain. They urged people caught on the other side of the slide, away from Wrangell, to evacuate by water taxi. A shelter has been established.
Additional reporting from the wires