Three missing after landslides in Alaska

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James Poulson/ The Daily Sitka Sentinel via AP
James Poulson/ The Daily Sitka Sentinel via AP

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A landslide described by one witness as a sea of logs, mud and debris is believed to have trapped three people who were missing Tuesday from a neighborhood in the Alaska coastal town of Sitka.

City officials earlier said four people were missing.

A city building official is among those who are missing. City officials said he is 62-year-old William Stortz who also is the city fire marshal. The Daily Sitka Sentinel first reported the identity.

The other people missing are brothers 26-year-old Elmer Diaz and 25-year-old Ulises Diaz, Sitka fire spokeswoman Sara Peterson said.

A search had not yet started late Tuesday afternoon because of the instability of the site.

Stortz’s wife, Libby, was at the area of the slide, waiting for a search to begin, said a family friend, Peter Turner. “Most of us don’t have a lot of hope,” he said.

Chris Harshey, who is a carpenter, was working on a nearby home when the slide occurred. “All of a sudden, I heard crackling and crumbling, and then the lights flickered,” he told the Sentinel.

Harshey went outside to investigate and saw “a sea of large logs, mud, more logs and a slurry of muddy debris.” The slide destroyed a home about 200 yards above him and damaged another home closer to him.

The entire landslide lasted about four minutes, he said.

The landslides occurred Tuesday morning after 2 1/2 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. One sinkhole also was reported.

Gov. Bill Walker planned to tour Sitka on Wednesday to observe the damage. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are missing and all the people affected by the disasters in Sitka today,” Walker said in a statement.

One of the newly built homes was destroyed in the landslide, and another was damaged, Peterson said. Some other homes in the area were evacuated, but Peterson did not know how many residences or people were affected.

An office building just outside town also was evacuated because it is near one of the landslides.

Homes in town have been flooded, and there were reports of residents not being able to reach their homes or leave their neighborhood, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Longtime Sitka resident Nolan Simpson said he toured parts of town and saw one home where the driveway was gone, replaced by a stream washing through it. He passed the Indian River and said it was roaring.

The landslide at the construction site was especially heartbreaking, he said. “It’s pretty devastating on how fast something like this can happen,” Simpson, a retired commercial fisherman, said in a phone interview from a saloon.

The city of more than 9,000 people declared a state of emergency because of the landslides.

Sitka, almost 600 miles southeast of Anchorage, sees heavy rain throughout the year. More rain was expected.

Heavy rain was blamed for a major landslide in September near the town that wiped out hundreds of thousands of dollars in watershed-restoration projects. The rain also damaged a footbridge and trails, including one that had been repaired after flooding in January 2014.

A year earlier, two people at a U.S. Forest Service cabin near Sitka escaped moments before part of a mountain slid down.

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