By Caroleine James
Wrangell Sentinel 

Four dead, two missing after 11-Mile landslide covers homes

 

November 29, 2023

Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Public Safety

Debris from a massive landslide extends into the sea at 11-Mile Zimovia Highway, cutting off road access for homes south of the slide. This photo was taken Nov. 21, looking north.

A massive landslide 11 miles from town destroyed three homes on Nov. 20 - including one that housed a five-member family - and stranded more than 70 residents who lived south of the slide.

Timothy Heller, 44, Beth Heller, 36, Mara Heller, 16, and Kara Heller, 11, have been confirmed dead. Derek Heller, 12, and Otto Florschutz, 65, were missing as of Monday night, Nov. 27.

Christina Florschutz, a teachers aide at Evergreen Elementary School, survived.

The slide occurred shortly before 9 p.m. and destroyed the Florschutz residence and an unoccupied residence, both on the upland side of Zimovia Highway, along with the Heller residence on the water side of the highway. Dirt, rocks, trees and debris covered a 450-foot-wide swath of the road. The slide extended approximately 1,500 feet down the mountainside.

Responders arrived at the scene soon after the first call and conducted an initial search for survivors, said Austin McDaniel of the state Department of Public Safety. Mara's body was found that evening.

Since the slide was still active Monday night, state troopers paused the ground search until a state geologist could arrive and assess the area.

Christina Florschutz was rescued the next morning after freeing herself from the debris of her home.

Searchers found the bodies of Beth and Timothy Heller later that same day, Nov. 21.

The search continued that morning via air and water. The state Department of Transportation provided a drone equipped with thermal detection equipment, which helped locate the Heller parents.

The search and rescue operation was suspended on Nov. 23. Later that day, the state Department of Transportation began clearing the road so that a municipal line crew could restore power to homes past 9-Mile.

Kara's body was recovered Nov. 25 during the road-clearing work.

As of Nov. 26, about 36 people had been displaced or had evacuated their homes, according to Tammi Meissner, the Tlingit and Haida community navigator in Wrangell.

The Stikine Inn, Sourdough Lodge and Trident bunkhouse offered their facilities to evacuees.

The U.S. Forest Service and private boat owners transported fuel, food and other supplies to the 55 homes and 71 residents staying past 11-Mile. The borough purchased generators and contracted with tour operators to provide regular water taxi service until the road is repaired.

Borough officials also coordinated with the pharmacy to provide residents with their prescription medications.

Because the landslide destroyed portions of the road, DOT will have to ship in asphalt for repairs. The scope of the damage is limited to the north end of the slide site and "it's pretty minimal," said Shannon McCarthy of the DOT.

The excavation team cleared a two-lane road through the debris, which became available to residents south of the slide for limited hours starting Tuesday, Nov. 28.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration for Wrangell on Nov. 21, which will allow the community to access state emergency funds to replace or repair infrastructure. Individuals and families whose property was damaged in the slide are eligible for disaster assistance through the state, and should call 1-844-445-7131. Disaster aid application packets also are available at City Hall.

The type of landslide that blocked Zimovia is called a "debris flow," according to state geologist Barrett Salisbury, and typically occurs after periods of heavy rain.

Several other flows occurred around Wrangell the same night, including one that blocked the road to Middle Ridge cabin.

"Without specialized instruments in place long before an event like this, it's virtually impossible to prevent this type of catastrophe," Salisbury said, adding that this variety of landslide is a risk throughout Southeast.

The borough is working to mitigate the island's slide risk, but "we still haven't determined the final approach to this," said Interim Borough Manager Mason Villarma. "Even with the most advanced warning systems, it is hard to get the signal out," especially since landslides can occur in a matter of seconds or minutes.

Moisture meters in hazardous areas could alert the borough that soil saturation is reaching dangerous levels, but these are expensive to install and maintain.

Ultimately, the amount of landslide risk that communities and individuals can accept is up to them, said state geologist Salisbury at a town hall meeting Nov. 26. "If you've lived here all your life, you've been exposed to that risk," he said. "We all accept that risk. It's really going to be a personal decision."

 

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