By Gretchen Wehmhoff
December slammed into the northern Lynn Canal with record breaking rainfall, multiple rock and mudslides and heavy snow in the passes.
Multiple storms pounded the panhandle with tropical moisture and heavy winds. Skagway saw over five inches of rain just on Dec. 2, during a month that averages 2.4 inches over 31 days. Dec. 1 and Dec. 3 each received over two inches of precipitation.
As the rain drenched the terrain, mudslides blocked portions of Dyea Road, sending Department of Transportation (DOT) crews to create a passable lane for emergency vehicles. For nearly a week, the road was closed to back and forth travel.
Dyea resident, Jeff Brady, was too busy pumping water out of his buildings to be driving the road.
An underground river started running through the southeast corner of his basement on Wednesday.
“There was a huge amount of dirty water running down West Creek road and then into a little side road that connects with our driveway. I had to ditch a bit in that area so it would flow right into West Creek instead of back toward us. We didn’t need any more water!” said Brady.
The event started Tuesday, Dec. 1 with the closure of the Klondike Highway between Skagway and the Fraser, BC customs. Excessive snow and blizzard conditions made it impassable.
The weather reports warned of a series of storms headed one after another into the area.
Tuesday saw a rock slide on the Dyea Road near the Longbay area and The National Park Service reported that heavy snow and fallen trees hindered any chance of plowing, so the road to the Dyea townsite was closed.
The weather caused the drive-thru COVID testing at Dahl Memorial Clinic to close and by Wednesday, the Municipality of Skagway (MOS) closed the roads to the Gold Rush Cemetery and Seven Pastures recreational area citing slide and flash flood concerns.
Residents on Dyea Road and Nakhu Road were told to stay put and call dispatch if they needed assistance.
Avalanches continued to plague the Klondike and the weather service warned of flash flooding.
Toilets and sewer lines started to back up. The MOS Public Works Department moved to a schedule of four hours on, four hours off and then changed to a six hours on, six hours off rotation to allow workers more time to to accommodate the demands of the emergency situation caused by the rain.
Trails around Skagway were closed due to ongoing mudslides. Lower Dewey Lake trail was actively sliding.
Both the Haines Highway and the Klondike were closed. The Haines Highway had at least six slides as of Tuesday, according to a DOT spokesperson in Juneau.
Darren Belilse of AP&T said their teams were working to keep the power on as trees became heavy with wet snow.
Belisle wasn’t ready to fully comment on Tuesday due to predicted weather conditions.
“The story’s not over,” he said. “We still have tonight.”
By Tuesday, Dec. 3, the National Weather Service reported 6-10 inches of rain had fallen in the Haines and Skagway areas. A flash flood watch was issued. On Dec. 4, the MOS closed the incinerator due to conditions on the Klondike Highway.
Twenty miles to the south, the neighboring community of Haines was being hit hard with a record breaking inundation of rain. Roads started to wash out and residents were cut off from town due to slides. Several individuals had to be rescued by boat.
On Tuesday, a piece of Redinsky Mountain came tearing down the slope. The mud and rock took out homes and portions of Beach Road as the 600-foot slide ruthlessly rushed into Lynn Canal.
Two Haines residents living in the slide’s path have not been found. Haines resident Janea Larson, 23, was in her first year of teaching Kindergarten at Haines Elementary School. David Simmons, 30, was the executive director of the Haines Economic Cooperation. On Dec. 7 the search was suspended for the two missing residents and the community gathered around the families of Larson and Simmons.
Searching for the two victims had become treacherous as the mountain continued to rumble and give way. Geologists, delayed by weather, determined the area was still unstable for search teams and dogs until the land had been dry for at least four days.
The community did what they could in boats and from the edge of the slide area. Coast Guard and private helicopters were dispatched to survey the slide.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared Haines was in a state of emergency, opening doors for state and federal assistance. Some communities near Haines were advised to boil water as the wastewater treatment plant was over capacity.
Haines residents evacuated from unstable areas, seasonally closed hotels opened up and the Red Cross set up commands. The Alaska Marine Highway ferried truck loads of volunteers, medical help and food trucks from Juneau. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians Tribes and the Skagway Traditional Council arranged for the gathering and transportation of supplies and donations to Haines.
Alaska Seaplanes waived freight charges for emergency supplies Skagwegians periodically donated through STC. GoFund me accounts sprung up.
On the afternoon of Dec.12, Haines held a vigil for their town and the two friends who were lost.
And at the same time, twenty miles to the north, at the end of Lynn Canal, their friends in Skagway held a candlelight vigil for their neighbors and friends in Haines.
Perhaps both communities could see the light so far away, or in the very least, feel the love.