At approximately 21:00 local time on Monday, November 20, 2023, a destructive landslide, produced by intense rainfall, occurred roughly 18 km (11 miles) outside Wrangell, Alaska, on the Zimovia Highway. This event resulted in the deaths of at least three individuals, including a child, with three more reported missing. Active rescue efforts continue in the face of the landslide, which extended over approximately 152 meters (500 feet), destroying three homes and prompting urgent evacuations in the area.
Following the landslide, Alaska State Troopers and local search teams launched a comprehensive rescue operation but concerns about the safety of the rescuers and the unstable conditions led to a temporary suspension of the search efforts. However, these efforts were soon resumed.
On Tuesday, amidst the ongoing search, a woman was found alive and immediately transported to a hospital. The same day, two adult casualties were discovered by a drone operator and subsequently recovered from the debris. As of Tuesday night (local time), the focused search for two children and one adult remains underway, with teams, including canine units, combing through the debris, steadfast in their mission to find the missing.
The landslide has prompted a significant response from local and state authorities. Wrangell Borough Manager Mason Villarma reported that 20 to 30 people were evacuated or asked to leave the area for their safety. Accommodations for those displaced were arranged at the Stikine Inn and Sourdough Lodge. In response to the disaster’s scale, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy declared a state of emergency in Wrangell. The Department of Public Safety has advised against entering the slide area, emphasizing the ongoing risk of additional landslides.
The Zimovia Highway has been closed from the 6-Mile marker onward, affecting local access and leaving the community beyond the landslide cut-off. There is currently no timeline for when these residents may return to their homes.
The landslide also disrupted power supply, leaving approximately 75 homes without electricity between the 9 Mile marker and the end of Wrangell’s highway system. Wrangell Public Schools have been closed, but Evergreen Elementary School will offer support services.
Dr. Dave Petley of The Landslide Blog provided insights into the landslide’s nature, drawing parallels to previous incidents in Alaska and Canada. He noted that the landslide initiated as a shallow slide in regolith, gathering debris and timber as it moved downslope, eventually transforming into a flow on the lower slopes. The incident bears resemblance to the 2020 Beach Road landslide in Alaska and the 2012 Johnsons Landing landslide in Canada.
Barrett Salisbury, a geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys, highlighted the inherent geological vulnerabilities of Southeast Alaska in a recent news conference. He explained that the region is naturally predisposed to debris flows, a risk that is significantly heightened by environmental factors such as heavy rainfall, rapid snowmelt, or periods of soil saturation. These conditions, often prevalent in the area, contribute to the increased likelihood of landslides and similar natural disasters.
1 At least 3 dead in Wrangell after landslide destroys homes – Alaska Public Media – November 21, 2023
2 A girl and 2 adults found dead after large Alaska landslide and others are still missing – CNN – November 21, 2023
3 The deadly 20 November 2023 landslide near Wrangell in Alaska, USA – The Landslide Blog – November 22, 2023
Featured image credit: Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
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