By Larry Persily
Wrangell Sentinel 

Clearing work continues at slide; fundraising grows to help families

 

December 6, 2023

Courtesy Jordan Buness / Wrangell Volunteer Fire Department

U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers provided critical support as searchers looked for Derek Keller, 12, still missing from the Nov. 20 landslide. The Alaska Department of Transportation estimates that almost 270 feet of slide debris spilled out into the intertidal zone.

Response to the deadly landslide continues, with extensive clearing work to remove debris from along the highway to increase safety and with fundraising for families affected by the disaster, particularly the Heller and Florschutz families that lost loved ones.

More than $43,000 from 342 donations had been raised in a GoFundMe campaign for the two families as of Monday, Dec. 4.

Almost $20,000 had been raised in another account to help families who were displaced or whose lives were disrupted by the Nov. 20 landslide at 11-Mile Zimovia Highway.

"There is a group of us who came together" to organize the fundraising, said Tammi Meissner.

Jillian Privett is helping to coordinate the GoFundMe campaign, and the Harbor Light Assembly of God Church is managing the other account, which was set up at First Bank.

The plan for the GoFundMe account "is to keep raising money for a few more weeks," then use it to cover any travel and end-of-life expenses, according to the account's web page.

After those expenses are settled, the funds will be split between the Florschutz family and the Heller estate, according to the account's web posting.

Multiple businesses have donated goods and services to the search and ongoing relief efforts, including Alaska Airlines, which provided tickets for Heller family members to travel to Wrangell from out of state.

The slide, which covered almost four-fifths of a mile as it poured down the mountainside before ending in the water, destroyed the home of Timothy and Beth Heller, ages 44 and 36, respectively, and their children, Mara, 16, Derek, 12, and Kara, 11.

As of Monday, Dec. 4, searchers had recovered the bodies of everyone except Derek. The other family members were found over several days, Nov. 20 through Nov. 25.

While debris clearing continues along both sides of the highway, scent-detection dogs and volunteers were on the scene to search for any indication of Derek's body.

State and borough officials reported that crews were timing their searches with the tides, with the canine teams looking at low tide and volunteers searching by boat at high tide.

"The debris in the intertidal zone has added to the complexity of the search process," the borough reported Monday morning. "There is also a clay layer that adds complexity as well."

The landslide also killed Otto Florschutz, 65. Searchers, with help from scent-detection dogs, found his body Thursday, Nov. 30. His wife, Christina, was upstairs in their house at the time of the slide and survived, pulling herself out of the debris and walking toward rescuers the next morning.

Ben Florschutz posted a form to the Wrangell Community Group Facebook page last week, asking people to share "a favorite story of yours about our dad, Otto Florschutz."

SLIDE AREA MAPPED OUT

With more time on the ground and more images from the air, the Alaska Department of Transportation has provided new measurements of the slide's length, width and coverage, now reporting the slide was more than twice as long as first estimated.

The distance from the top of the slide to the beach line is 3,733 feet. Counting the debris field that went into the water, the total is closer to 4,000 feet. That's about equal to the distance from the end of City Dock, down Front Street to the Marine Bar, and then to the far end of Shakes Island.

The slide was 449-feet wide where it crossed Zimovia Highway. Teams working to clear debris reopened the road to restricted traffic on Nov. 27.

The debris field is 715 feet across at its widest point and 95 feet across at its smallest point, near the top of the mountain.

The slide covers a total area of about 38 acres, which is a slightly larger area than the Shustak Peninsula, which wraps around the Inner Harbor.

HIGHWAY WORK CONTINUES

Clearing continued over the weekend and Monday, with the borough reporting close to 90 truckloads hauled away on Saturday.

Interim Borough Manager Mason Villarma reported Sunday that contractors for the state Department of Transportation are hauling the trees and other debris to two pre-approved disposal sites in the area.

"Once the shoulder easements are fully cleared of the debris ... preparations for the concrete patch (on the highway) will begin," the borough reported on Sunday.

The highway is open, but only for residents who live past the slide area and responders. Permits, which are required for the residents to drive through the slide area, are available at City Hall and from the police.

As of Monday, Dec. 4, the highway will be open 7:30 to 8 a.m., noon to 12:30 p.m. and 4 to 4:30 p.m. Police will escort drivers through the work zone.

The borough reported the new times will give crews "more time each day to complete the necessary repairs. The goal is to install concrete patches and other safety features so that normal two-lane traffic can resume on the Zimovia Highway in the future."

STATE WILL INSTALL MONITORS

As it plans for long-term monitoring of the mountainside, the state Department of Transportation reported Friday, Dec. 1, that it would install two remote weather stations. The stations "will provide crucial data on soil moisture, temperature, wind and rainfall, allowing us to closely monitor the slide area."

The state also will set up a drone-in-a-box system for additional monitoring capabilities. The drone will be housed in a container, ready for automated deployment and return. "It's designed to take off, perform its task and then autonomously return and dock back into its box without human intervention," the department said in an online statement.

"Both of these technologies will be assisting in the Wrangell response soon."

ASSISTANCE AVAILABLE

State financial assistance is available for people directly affected by the slide, covering temporary housing expenses, fuel, damages and other costs.

Application packets are available at City Hall, or people can call the state at 844-445-7131 for more information 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays or apply online at ready.alaska.gov/Recovery/IA.

In addition to helping with property repairs and replacing personal items, renters may qualify for up to three months of rental assistance and homeowners may be eligible for up to 18 months of housing aid.

The Wrangell Strong Community Relief Group Facebook page offers to help connect residents who are reluctant to return to their homes near the slide area with housing options. It's to help people who don't feel safe at their old homes, Privett said.

The donation drop-off and pickup site at the community center, managed by the borough's parks and recreation department, is closing down after it was open last weekend to clear out the large amount of food, clothing and personal care items brought to the center.

The staff planned to make sure whatever was left went to people who need it, said Devyn Johnson, of the Parks and Recreation staff.

Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation

In cleanup work on Saturday, Dec. 2, Scott McAuliffe, of the Alaska Department of Transportation, cuts away at trees that came down the mountainside in a jumbled-up mass near the highway. Workers on Saturday hauled away about 90 truckloads of trees and other debris.

In addition to the community's regular Facebook group and the Wrangell Strong Community Relief Group Facebook page, the borough has set up a Wrangell Landslide Recovery Facebook page for people to follow updates on the disaster.

JUNEAU PITCHES IN

Fundraising extended across Southeast Alaska. "We've had people donate from all over," Meissner said.

That includes a drive underway in Juneau to collect several thousand pounds of food.

"As we approach the holiday season, let's come together to make a meaningful impact through a dedicated food and toy drive," said a Facebook post by Southeast Alaska Standing Together.

The group said Alaska Marine Lines and U-Haul of Alaska have offered to cover shipping from Juneau to Wrangell, with two collection sites for donations in Juneau.

"All donated items will be put on a pallet and shipped to The Salvation Army in Wrangell for distribution," the Juneau-based group said.

 

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