State agencies and borough collaborate on aid, repairs, monitoring

In the coming days, weeks and months, the borough and state will continue the multi-agency effort to repair Zimovia Highway, gather data about landslide risks and connect eligible community members with financial assistance.

Highway repairs are underway, though the remainder of the project could last an additional three weeks. On Saturday, local and state Department of Transportation crews completed installation of a 36-inch-diameter culvert under the road, allowing water and debris from the mountainside to drain into Zimovia Strait and not further undermine the highway.

At least two more culverts are planned for the area at 11-Mile Zimovia Highway, with work proceeding on a second 36-inch culvert on Monday.

Shannon McCarthy, the department's communications director, estimates that concrete and other work will take two and a half to three weeks, depending on the weather, which would extend the timeline further. "We are moving as deliberately and quickly as we can," she said at a borough press conference on Saturday, Dec. 9.

As of Monday, the borough was continuing to limit traffic through the slide area, where the highway is down to a single lane. The borough and state had announced a full closure of the road to the public for Tuesday as a safety measure, with heavy rain and wind in the forecast. Possible highway openings will be announced Wednesday morning.

Separate from the road repairs, the borough's application for federal disaster designation is underway. Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared the deadly Nov. 20 slide a state disaster the following day, and additional funding could be available if the event is also declared a federal disaster, Interim Borough Manager Mason Villarma explained at the press conference.

Because the Wrangell landslide occurred on the same day as slides, flooding and power outages affecting Prince of Wales Island communities, Villarma is hopeful that the Southeast damage will receive federal recognition. The borough will likely hear back in the next few months.

After collecting data in the area of Wrangell's slide, researchers with the state Division of Geological and Geophysical surveys are "back in the office ... compiling their data, their information they gathered while they were out there," said Landslide Hazards Program Manager Mort Larsen.

The team plans to release an interpretive report of their data and is continuing to monitor areas of concern around the island, including the trailer court at 3-Mile.

Larsen told the community to look out for structural damage to their properties, like movement in a retaining wall or driveway, or any changes to the land around their homes - these can be early signs of landslide risk.

That said, no amount of monitoring or data collection can completely guarantee the safety of community members living under slide-prone slopes.

"There's only so much we can do to predict these sorts of things," said Villarma. "There are very little warning signs. We want to be able to equip folks with the best information available to make personal decisions."

The borough hopes to increase the percentage of Wrangell residents who are signed up for its NIXLE emergency alert system from 10% to 75% in the coming months. Currently, there are 280 subscribers.

To sign up, visit the borough's website, navigate to the "resources" tab and click on "subscribe for NIXLE notifications." The alerts come to people's smartphones.

So far, the borough has not taken steps to condemn any of the homes located near the slide area. Doing so could make residents eligible for housing assistance, but it's "an extreme thing that local governments don't often use," said Mike Macans of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.


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