Photos by Rashah McChesney

In early December of 2020, coming off of a summer of isolation from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haines residents found themselves in the center of a weather pattern that brought unprecedented rain.
There was widespread flooding, debris flows, damaged roads blocking off parts of town and landslides – including a major one on Beach Road that killed two people.
On the third anniversary of that slide, CVN reached out to residents who were photographed during that week of disaster and recovery to find out how they’re doing now.

They told stories of loss, grief and struggling with their mental health, but nearly all of them said they are grateful to have been part of something bigger than themselves – a community that reached for each other at a time when the pandemic had forced everyone apart.

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details that may be disturbing for some readers.

Lin Edgar

In this Dec. 5, 2020 file photo Lin Edgar ties up her curtains and watches crews carry wet carpet and flooring out of her home on Dec. 5, 2020. Three years later, Edgar said she does not remember much from this time due to the shock of the flood that drove her from home and the town’s fatal landslide. But, she is grateful for the support and hopes she can return the favor to the volunteers who cleaned out her home.

CREDIT: Rashah McChesney/KTOO file photo

It takes a lot for Lin Edgar to remember specific details about the week in early December of 2020 when her house flooded and she was evacuated from her home.

“I didn’t know I was in shock, but I was definitely in shock,” she said.

When nudged, the story pours out of her. It started with the rain, falling on several inches of snow. First the water pooled up on the road leading to her house on Spruce Grove Road. Sawmill Creek next door started to flow over its banks.

“It’s funny because, you know, sometimes you see news stories of people getting rescued on the roof of their house and you think ‘well that’s dumb, why didn’t they leave sooner?,” she said. “And I can say that it happens so fast, you just don’t know what to do.”

What she does remember is that as the water came up, she worried about her chickens. So she brought them inside and sheltered them in her garage, thinking that would keep them safe.

“I lost my favorite one first, Dotty,” Edgar said. “She knew her name and would come when I called.”

The chickens drowned in her garage, which is about two feet lower than the rest of the house. Just one survived. Edgar moved it upstairs into her bedroom.

She started calling emergency dispatchers.

“Dispatch said they would send a fire truck and I told them there was no way a fire truck could get down to my house and turn around. They were going to have to send a loader,” Edgar said.

She made her way over to the Captain’s Choice Motel, where she and others stood on the deck on Dec. 2 and watched as the water in Lynn Canal got cloudy.

“We saw… maybe not the [slide] but right after because the trees hadn’t even started dispersing into the water,” she said. A massive landslide had crashed down over Beach Road. They knew it had to have taken homes into the water.

“It was just this, like, gut feeling,” Edgar said. “We didn’t know the scope of it at that point, I don’t think anybody did.”

The next day, Edgar went home to retrieve her remaining chicken – now named Lucky and gifted to a friend. That’s when Jason Eson, a former roommate, stepped in. He called on a network of friends and community members.

More than a dozen people showed up.

A group of volunteers carry heavy, wet carpet out of Lin Edgar’s flood-damaged home as another dumps gravel on the ice in front of them to help with traction on Dec. 5, 2020.

They tore up waterlogged carpet, ripped out drywall and wet insulation. Some plugged in dehumidifiers and ran squeegees across the floors, pushing the water out.

While the home still needs work, Edgar said she’s gotten some aid for repairs from Eson – who donated a lot of his time on construction, FEMA, Lutak Lumber and SAIL, Inc. She also got a care package from a college friend in Juneau.

“It had a bunch of supplies in it and it was all decorated with these little Christmas stickers,” she said. “It was kind of the best thing.”

It was that moment of intimacy that Edgar was craving.

“I had just broken up with my boyfriend of 10 years. So I was moving back into my house for the first time and I was so utterly alone,” she said.

Because of the pandemic, she didn’t have a lot of close contact with friends.

“It took away all our options to deal with things in a healthy way,” she said. “I went on walks with some girlfriends as long as I stayed away. I couldn’t get hugs from them and that was so hard and honestly opened the door to dealing with things in unhealthy ways.”

It took a toll on her mental health. That’s something she’s hoping will be different for residents in Wrangell who are dealing with their own fatal landslide this year.

“Hopefully they can come together as a community and they don’t have to worry about COVID outbreaks,” she said.

This year, for the first time since 2020, Edgar said she feels OK. And, she hopes she’ll one day be able to repay the kindness people in town showed to her when they came to help with her home.

“If they ever need anything, they can call me. I will be there,” she said.

Hayden and Carlos Jimenez

Carlos Jimenez hugs his son Hayden Jimenez, as the two wait for an opportunity to help with the search and rescue operation for two residents missing after a 2020 landslide.

Hayden Jimenez was 13 years old when he and his family left their home at the base of Mount Ripinsky, walked through the woods to the Aspen Hotel to wait out the torrential rain, flooding and landslides all over town.

“It seemed like fun and games, you know,” Hayden said.

His mother and younger brother headed to Gustavus, while he and his dad, Carlos Jimenez, stayed in town.

When the hillside gave way and a massive slide rumbled down over Beach Road, father and son headed to the public safety building where an Emergency Operations Center came together to coordinate search and rescue.

Hayden said he knew there would be a lot of waiting; his dad warned him that he’d probably just be sitting in the building. But, that beat staying back at the hotel room doing the same thing.

“There was nothing going on. I wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “There was no school, obviously.”

There were not many other kids in the public safety building. But, Hayden said he felt welcomed and it was buzzing with activity. Searchers would come in and out. There were troopers, search-and-rescue dogs and their handlers. Many stopped to have a word or two with Hayden.

One started teaching him to tie knots, including a complicated one-hander.

“I still actually remember that knot,” he said. “It’s just a figure eight, but you throw it.”

Hayden remembers feeling eager to go out and help with the search.

“I knew what was going on. Like, it was heavy stuff. But, I wanted to be part of that process,” he said. “One day we went down to the beach and walked – a really long way. We walked and picked up debris and stuff.”

He remembers the excitement of finding a clue.

“I actually found a ping pong ball, which, at the time I didn’t know meant anything. But, that was David [Simmons’] thing, ping pong,” he said. “So I was able to give that to somebody at the fire hall.”

It made him feel like he was serving a purpose, and it was interesting and something of an adventure. He remembers his dad going out to help on a boat at some point, leaving Hayden behind.

“I really, really wanted to do that,” he said. “It sounded way more fun than walking the beaches that I normally walked. It frustrated me that he wouldn’t want me to do that.”

Even though he understood there were missing – maybe dead – people everyone was trying to find. But, he doesn’t think he was actually processing it – though, he struggles to find the words to explain that.

Now, on the edge of turning 17, the gravity hits him.

“I think that if I would have found a body at 13, I would have always remembered that, which wouldn’t be a great thing,” he said. “I definitely would think about it more now and maybe be more OK with sitting there all day versus being out [searching].”

Like many others in town, Hayden saw Wrangell’s slide and it drew out a lot of memories.

“It looks identical to ours,” he said. “It just that — it kind of seemed like when it happened here, like a very unlikely, crazy disaster.”

And, he said he knew Mara Heller, the high-school-aged daughter of the family who died in Wrangell’s slide.

“I’d see her at basketball,” he said. “It’s weird to think about such a reality – and it can happen that quick.”

Now, like many others in town, Hayden said he thinks of the Beach Road slide when the weather takes a turn.

“I definitely think about it. It doesn’t affect me in my day-to-day life but when you see it snow a bunch and then it starts raining, it’s always in the back of your mind you know,” he said. “I guess it’s kind of part of the risk you take when you live somewhere like this. It’s worth it if you love living here.”

Nolan Woodard

Nolan Woodard has a cigarette after a long day of work at the Halsingland Hotel on on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.. Woodard and hundreds of others volunteered on projects all over Haines as it grapples with devastating landslides and flooding.

On the morning of the Beach Road slide, Nolan Woodard woke up late.

He had a cup of coffee and breakfast and checked his social media.

“I saw pictures on Facebook of people on paddleboards going to rescue people from their homes,” he said. “So I turned the radio on. It wasn’t long after that they put out the all-call.”

He grabbed what gear he could and headed to the public safety building.

He remembers a lot of chaos and misinformation “… Six people missing, ten people missing, just two people missing.”

But at one point in the early afternoon he clearly remembers hundreds of people crowded into the building “with everything you could think of, with a number two shovel, with a pickaxe, with a chainsaw, just ready to go.”

But as the December sun set early first responders decided it was too dangerous to go looking for missing people after the dark, in the cold, on a still-moving mudslide. They told the crowd to go home.

“I think that was just a really demoralizing, kind of soul-crushing moment,” he said. “We all have to go home knowing it’s going to get below freezing. Knowing they’re not going to see sunlight for another 18 hours or whatever. Knowing that the likelihood of them being alive is dwindling by the second.”

Woodard said he didn’t know what to do with himself.

“It really, really sucked. I think just that moment of going home that first night, putting my backpack down and just being like – ‘I can’t do anything else. That was one of the weirdest nights of my life,” he said. “Going home, to your bed, to your warm, dry house, knowing full well there are people not in their homes, or in their beds because they’re out somewhere in the ocean or under the mud. Then you have to go to sleep with that, you have to be OK with that.”

For the next several days, Woodard fought against that feeling. As small groups of volunteers moved around town helping each other cope with flooding, smaller slides, or with the search and rescue efforts – Woodard was there. He had a go bag in the back of his truck with gear, a sleeping bag and a change of clothes.

He said it was hectic for a while. He ended up acting as a spotter for search and rescue dogs at the Beach Road slide just 24 hours after the slope gave way. They were supposed to yell a warning to the dog handlers if they saw any indication that it could slide again.

“We were standing on the ridge, looking up. Keeping our eyes peeled for any movement,” he said.

A few days later, when it became clear evacuations were going to continue and all of the hotels in town filled up, Woodard joined a crew of dozens of former employees and volunteers to gently coax the century-old Hotel Halsingland back to life.

And he settled into something of a routine.

“I had people I was checking on. It got to the point where, before I went home – I’d do a lap around town, and go help anybody,” he said.

Now, three years later, Woodard owns the Alpenglow pizza restaurant – one of the first places he met David Simmons, who later died in the Beach Road slide.

“He used to work here as a waiter,” Woodard said. “They used to do ping pong on Wednesday and he ran that.”

Woodard said he wants to bring back ping pong and the energy that Simmons brought to the restaurant.

And, he’s proud to be part of a community that has what he calls a classic sibling relationship.

“I can pick on you and make fun of you and tease you and talk about you as much as I want but any moment someone from outside does that, or you’re in danger, I am going to move mountains to help you,” he said.

That creates an environment where, Woodard said, even if you don’t like your neighbor, you go make sure they’re alive because they’re your neighbor.

He thinks back to that moment in the firehall, standing with hundreds of his neighbors.

“I think there was this, really incredible sense of camaraderie and pride when you look around the room and there’s 200 community members and it’s not just family and friends – it’s all walks of life, it’s all political beliefs, it’s all ideologies, it’s everything. It’s 200 people and we are here to help,” he said. “It was such a buzz. It’s a sad and scary moment, shit hit the fan and people stepped up. They were ready to go.”

Hera and Joe Oesterling

Luke Marquardt lets Cervantes eat some of his bread during dinner for evacuees on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020 at the American Legion Lynn Canal Post.

Hera was the only certified search and rescue dog in town when a massive landslide took houses on Beach Road out into the Lynn Canal.

Joe Oesterling said the European German Shepherd is his first search dog and the only one from Haines to have been on SEADOGS – a Juneau-based organization that trains, certifies and sends out search dog teams to help law enforcement with rescue and recovery missions.

She gravitated toward what’s known as wilderness air scenting – the scent coming off of a person constantly. “It’s your lost hiker for the most part,” Oesterling said.

When they were called in to help with the landslide search, they were limited in what they could do.

“They wouldn’t let us on the slide area at all,” he said. “Of course, we went and combed the all the beaches to see if there was anything we could pick up.”

He remembers the rocky beaches being covered in ice and the dogs having a hard time standing.

“That was one really challenging thing that I don’t think I’ve encountered in a search since,” he said.

Months later, they were finally given clearance to go search the slide. Oesterling said he and Hera and two or three other dogs spent a few days on the slide itself trying to pick up any sign of David Simmons and Jenae Larson, who are still missing.

The SEADOGS train for lost people, water searches and avalanches but Oesterling said landslides are completely different.

“You can’t put a dog up on top of a landslide the same way you can put a dog on top of a rubble pile in a disaster situation. They’re really hard to train for,” he said. “The little bit we got on the slide was pretty challenging. It was everything from – ground that was super hard like concrete and then you’d take two steps and you’re up to your thigh in mud.”

Years later, Oesterling, he looks back on that time and sees how damaging it was for people in town who wanted to help with the physical search and could not. He and the other SEADOGS had a job and having something to focus on can help in traumatic situations.

It’s something that’s happening differently in Wrangell. Oesterling said SEADOGS has been responding to that disaster and search as well.

He and other Haines residents can’t seem to help but compare the two.

“They’ve got community members with excavators in there digging right now and they have since probably 24 hours of when the slide happened,” he said. “They’ve found everyone but one person, so there’s lots of closure for community members in some respects. It doesn’t make it bitter, but knowing that they’ve recovered people is a big deal.”

Oesterling has responded to a lot of disasters, but this was the first one in his own backyard. It’s hard to escape what remains of Haines’ fatal landslide. You see it every time you come into and out of Haines on the ferry or a plane, and when you’re looking in that direction from certain parts of town.

“I wish for the families that we would have been able to bring [David Simmons and Jenae Larson] home for them. That’s the toughest part, I think, is knowing that those guys still haven’t been given that and probably never will be,”he said.

At the last SEADOGS meeting, Oesterling said they talked about future training.

“You know, the Sitka slide, then the Haines slide, and now the Wrangell slide – that’s where the environment is headed with warmer temperatures which is going to bring more rain,” he said. “We’re going to start seeing more landslides, then we need to start doing training that’s more applicable – disaster training, human remains training. Moving our protocols in that direction so that we are prepared for that situation.”

But that won’t happen for Hera who is retired now. Oesterling said he made the choice to take her off of the active SEADOGS roster when, after her 10th birthday, he noticed that she was losing her hearing.

“I’m sure she misses it because she really enjoys the game that search is,” he said.

“My hope is here, I think I’m going to give her her golden years. She’s going to live a life of luxury now.”

Luke and Symaron Marquardt and Cervantes

Hera, waits to be taken out to search for two missing Haines residents near a landslide on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. For years, Hera was Haines’ only certified Search & Rescue dog, but owner Joe Oesterling retired the ten-year-old European German Shepherd in 2023.

Cervantes is a loud bird.

Of the five birds, two cats and one dog that crowded into the Captain’s Choice Motelmotel when Luke and Symaron Marqardt evacuated their home in 2020, the jenday conure was the most vocal.

“She’s the loudest bird I’ve ever heard,” Luke said. When she screams, “it hurts your ears.”

So when the Marquardts headed over to the American Legion Lynn Canal Post for their meals with other evacuees, they’d bring her along.

“We didn’t want her to be sitting in the room, scaring the other guests,” Symaron said.

Luke said she loves being the center of attention, and junk food. “That’s one way to get her to shut up, usually. Sometimes she’ll scream with food in her mouth, but usually not.”

The couple live at the base of Mount Ripinsky, so when the rain caused flooding and landslides they were concerned they’d be washed away. They decided to leave with their menagerie, which actually included 10 birds – though they were able to place some with friends.

It’s not easy to move a bird and it was something of a logistical nightmare to get them all into their own separate carriers and wedged into the couple’s little Subaru Legacy.

“All of our birds have been rescues and a lot of them have their own mental problems and issues,” Luke said. “So it’s kind of all different with how we need to interact with them, to move them. And, it can’t be rushed. Like, if something bad was happening and you were like ‘oh no, we have to get the birds’ you can’t just grab a parrot. They’ll bite your finger off.”

Then there was the stress of living in a hotel room with so many animals.

“Birds chew stuff. So the last thing we wanted them to do was chew the walls or the windowsills,” Symaron said. “You have to keep up after them.”

They stayed in that hotel for four or five days and went back home as soon as it looked fairly safe to return.

But, the impact of that week lingers.

“I was shell-shocked,” Luke said. “It actually took me like, about a year and a half to two years before I even … like every time I went down to the beach, which is my favorite place, I was always traumatized seeing pieces of houses and I kept expecting to find a body part or something. When I go diving, I get scared that my friend’s body .. is going to float up. That still happens.”

And, it’s not just the people who were never found. Symaron said a lot of people from outside of the community remember the Beach Road slide. But flooding and slides happened all over town.

She remembers feeling like she was hiding in the center of town while the mountains fell down around them. There was damage and washouts by the airport and the ferry terminal.

“Everywhere you turned there was devastation,” she said. “It was a very strange feeling to be trapped in the middle of town with no direction to run to to be safe. I think that lingered for a long time,” she said.

Even now, driving around town and seeing the scars of those washouts, she said the terrain doesn’t look stable anymore.

“There’s not a single time that I’m driving out Lutak [road] now – especially if it’s raining or particularly bad – I find myself tracking to see if the landscape is moving like it shouldn’t be,” she said.

Luke said all of the pets they evacuated with are doing well now. Cervantes, who they were bird-sitting at the time of the disaster, is back with her owner and doing well. Symaron shared a video of the bird dipping a teabag for him.

Despite those memories, and the anxiety, Symaron said she’s doing well now. She works as a property manager for Haines Senior Village, focused on making sure that seniors have access to affordable housing.

“Helping other people is a worthy cause to spend my time on and I think the disaster and losing David and Jenae and having our community go through that was a real wakeup call that all it takes is a moment for everything to change,” she said. “All we can really do is focus on the present and do what we can to leave a lasting, positive effect on this world when we have a chance.”