As displaced Beach Road residents wait for a verdict on if and when they can safely return to their houses, some are starting to consider futures outside Haines.

On Dec. 2, a landslide on Mount Riley killed two residents, destroyed several houses, and left homes at the end of Beach Road separated from town.

The Haines Borough has kept a portion of the neighborhood under mandatory evacuation while awaiting the results of a geotechnical study that officials hope will help them make informed decisions about the short-term access and long-term use of the area.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do, so I went out and got pre-approval for a VA loan. I have to keep my options open,” said retired physician and Beach Road resident Dennis Franks, 78.

Franks’ house is below a crack in the bedrock adjacent to the Dec. 2 slide. Franks said he thinks it’s unlikely that anything will be done to mitigate the threat. “They’ll just leave it alone and condemn the house,” he said, so he’s starting to look for homes elsewhere.

“We’re looking (in Haines), but it’s slim-to-nothing pickings, so we’re looking down south as well. I don’t know where we’re going to end up because homes are pretty expensive,” he said.

“We’d stay here if we could find something that’s not exorbitant and not backed up to a mountain because I’m not going to go through this again,” Franks said. He said he now views steep hillsides as potential landslide threats.

“This is not going to end. (Weather scientists) called this a two hundred-year event, which means we could have it next year. This is just the beginning. The beauty of Haines is nice, but you have to be aware,” Franks said. When he purchased his Beach Road property in 1983, he never expected a giant landslide might tear through the neighborhood.

The prospect of starting over in his late 70s is scary, Franks said. “That house was supposed to be the inheritance for my five children, and now there’s nothing.”

Franks has relocated to a small apartment in town. He said he and his wife have been back once since then, after the temporary access road opened, to collect belongings.

He said he suspects the house is deteriorating without steady heat, but he won’t know the extent of the damage until power is restored.

“I won’t know if there’s any damage until we turn the water back on and the power, but the house itself is intact,” he said, adding that none of that will matter if the house is determined to be in a high-risk landslide zone.

Franks has received financial help but it’s nowhere close to the value of his home and property, which he estimates at $750,000.

Franks said his insurance claims were denied. He was eventually able to secure rental assistance for the apartment—state relief supplemented by the Salvation Army—and has received other assistance in the form of gift cards and donated items.

He’s grateful for the help, but it’s hard to be separated from home, he said. Franks built the house and moved into it in 1999. He planned to live there the rest of his life.

“I miss my bidet. Once you have a bidet, you really miss it when it’s gone,” Franks said.

He said he also misses the house’s seclusion. “It’s quiet. We have bears coming through all the time, and you can feed the hummingbirds.” He said the house has a view of the ocean through the trees. “It was very peaceful, and it was big and warm because of the in-floor heat.”

Franks said he’s doubtful the studies will say the house can be occupied in the long term and wishes the borough would move more quickly to make a determination.

“The mentality of this town is they don’t do anything until they study it, and they study it to death. When you have twenty-five families in limbo, it doesn’t work,” Franks said. “If they’re not going to put in power and a road, they should let us know, so we can move on with our lives.”

It’s possible funding could become available down the line for buying out landowners if the Beach Road neighborhood is determined to be unsafe for long-term habitation.

FEMA hazard mitigation funds have been made available in the wake of the December storms. The funds are given to the state and made available to communities through an application process. The applications are reviewed by the state’s hazard mitigation committee, which selects projects that have the greatest cost-benefit ratio for Alaskans, according to Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management public information officer Jeremy Zidek.

Zidek said funds can be used to buy out landowners, citing Sutton, Alaska as an example. In 2018, the funds bought homes in danger of falling into the Matanuska River due to erosion. The purchased properties were turned into a permanent greenspace.

Zidek said he’s not sure what kind of compensation homeowners received, or whether they received market or assessed value. He said there’s a second program, similar to the hazard mitigation funds, available to applicants nationwide that could also potentially fund the purchase of homes.

Home purchases are made in a way that ensures homeowners have the option of staying in their community, if that’s what they want. “We don’t want to purchase someone’s home and make them have to leave,” Zidek said.

Franks said he should have a better idea of what his options are for buying a new home in Haines this spring. In the meantime, he and other displaced residents are still responsible for paying property taxes this year. Franks said he just got his assessment in the mail.

“They devalued the land by more than fifty percent, but the property’s (assessed) worth is still $472,600,” he said.