Evacuees worry about homes and when they will be able to return safely


December 10, 2020

The upper stories of Steve Virgin's Lutak house ended up in the driveway after a mudslide swept through his property. Kyle Clayton photo.

After the Dec. 2 Beach Road landslide, more than 50 Haines residents were displaced when neighborhoods including Beach Road and the Piedad-Cathedral View area were evacuated due to landslide risk. On Saturday, additional residents elected to evacuate after an area stretching from Piedad to Picture Point was advised to prepare for a possible evacuation.

"I got the dog and myself out," said Paul Graf, one of the residents stranded at the end of Beach Road after the slide came down. Graf and other residents at the end of Beach Road were evacuated in boats the same afternoon. Aside from his Yorkipoo, Petey, Graf left everything else at home, including his wallet.

Graf had been working to dig out a culvert toward the end of the road with Dawn Woodard and Walker Blair when the slide came down.

"Paul and Walker headed back toward Walker's house, and they saw the landslide. Paul was like, 'Oh my God.' Walker was like, 'I've got to go,' and started climbing over trees. People were coming out of their houses and going, 'What do I do?'" said Graf's wife, Sally Garton, who was at work when the slide happened. "I didn't know any of that at the time. I kept trying to call Paul, but he wasn't answering. I didn't know where the slide had happened on the road."

Garton said she heard from her husband an hour later and was reunited with him and Petey, around 4:45 p.m.

Like many Beach Road homeowners, Garton said the biggest challenge post-evacuation is being separated from the house.

"The hardest part of this is not knowing when we are going to get to go home and if there is going to be a home to go back to. We didn't have time to winterize the house. Will the water lines break? There's garbage in the garage. Are the bears going to get in? Are they going to break through and destroy the house?" Garton said.

Because Garton was at the office, the only items she had were the ones she brought to work, which, unlike her husband, included her wallet and driver's license. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's put your important stuff in a place where it can be grabbed in a hurry. We've become really complacent living here in this beautiful place with wonderful people, and then this happens," Garton said.

The Beach Road area on both sides of the slide has remained under mandatory evacuation since Dec. 2. On Tuesday, houses on upper Mount Riley Road were added to the mandatory evacuation zone based on data collected by state geologists.

The day after the Beach Road slide, neighborhoods west of Piedad Road on the Mount Ripinsky slope were placed under mandatory evacuation after landslide warning signs were observed. Residents were notified via Nixle alert around 9 p.m. and police went door-to-door to help notify residents.

"We were eating cookies and watching this show called, 'Baskets,' a dark comedy about a man who aspires to be a clown (when the Nixle alert came through)," Piedad resident Travis Kukull said. "When you get the notification, you don't know what the meaning is. Is it coming down now? You have the visual of what happened earlier at Beach Road."

Kukull said while his wife, Rachel, grabbed practical items like clothes and toothbrushes, he ran to the closet.

"I grabbed all of my jackets, a pair of snow pants and an extra pair of shoes and just threw them in the trunk of the car," Kukull said. "I think I grabbed all the jackets because it was terrible weather outside. I didn't know where I'd be staying, and I didn't want to be cold. I guess we should have put together an evacuation kit ahead of time, but we thought we would be good on our side of town."

Kukull said the event has really changed his perception of the local landscape.

"The mountains were beautiful, and now the mountains are this terrifying thing," he said. "The adventurous lifestyle that draws people to Alaska, it attracts people who like to do slightly risky things. But this does not feel like an adventure. This does not feel fun, it feels like a disaster."

Less than 10 minutes after the alert, the Kukulls and their two roommates had all loaded into the same car and evacuated. It wasn't until later that they realized it would have made more sense to take separate vehicles.

"When I pulled up in front of Aspen, I realized I was shaking," Kukull said. The Red Cross put them up in a hotel room that night. The next day, they moved to a rented house at Fort Seward.

Rachel Kukull said even though she went for the practical items, she only packed enough for one night. "I thought we'd be back sooner."

Over the next couple of days, the Kukulls returned to the house several times to grab items they'd forgotten.

Saturday night, based on rain in the forecast and available geological information, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) designated a large swath of the townsite, from Piedad Road to Picture Point, as an area of concern and told residents to prepare belongings in case they needed to evacuate quickly. Although evacuation wasn't deemed necessary at the time, a number of residents left their homes.

"We knew we wouldn't sleep well, and we wanted to go ahead and leave when we could, when it wasn't the sudden 3 a.m. mandatory evacuation," Skyline resident Emily McMahan said. She said another factor in the decision was access to town.

"We had already spent some time being cut off because of Young Road. Adam, my husband, is a physician at the clinic, and we definitely wanted to make sure that he had access. He had to walk to work the first day after Young Road fell apart," she said.

McMahan said her family had done a mock evacuation scenario with their 4-year-old and 10-year-old a couple of days before, but it was still hectic getting two kids and three dogs out the door, as well as McMahan's parents and their dogs, who also live in the area.

"I had a really hard time thinking of what I needed. When I would look in the closet, my mind would go a little bit blank. It's challenging to mentally narrow down the few essentials," McMahan said.

While she and her husband grabbed sleeping bags, clothes and food, McMahan said her children grabbed personal items.

"Our 4-year-old brought a bunch of his money. Our 10-year-old brought a memory book of a dog that had passed away, a paw print, a dog collar and some knives," she said. Both children brought their favorite stuffed animals.

The McMahans left the house around 11:30 p.m. while the town was getting pummeled with snow.

McMahan said her family is trying to figure out if and when they'll move back to their house. On Tuesday, the EOC refined landslide areas of concern. The Skyline neighborhood no longer falls in the "be prepared" zone on the Ripinsky slope. However, the McMahans run the risk of being cut off from town if something happens in the Highland-Picture Point area, which is currently categorized as "elevated alert," a notch above "be prepared."

"We're trying to figure out just how to make the right decisions. We want to give geologists enough of a chance to do all of their assessments and monitoring. I hope we can get a little more clarity before making the decision to fully go back," McMahan said.

The EOC received some criticism for "scaring people" after it sent out Saturday's "be prepared" alert for the Ripinsky neighborhoods. In response to the criticism, Mayor Douglas Olerud said he stands by the decision.

"If I screwed up somebody's weekend, I can apologize, but I don't want to go to their funeral," Olerud said. "It wasn't our intention to create fear and anxiety, but we looked at it as an EOC, and the information that we were given, we thought it was prudent to provide that information to the community to be ready in case the situation arose that we needed to move quickly to get people to safety."

The EOC will continue to revise boundaries and risk assessments for neighborhoods designated as areas of concern in the coming days as geologists gather more information. Drier, colder weather in the forecast should help increase slope stability and allow geologists to collect more aerial images of Haines to assist with risk assessment.

It's difficult to count the total number of displaced residents in Haines as some have moved in with friends and family in other parts of the borough. Over the weekend, the Aspen and Captain's Choice estimated that 70 rooms, between the two establishments, were occupied by evacuee families.

The Red Cross tracks daily room use and said the night of Dec. 6, the day after Ripinsky was designated an area of concern, 95 people registered to stay in Red Cross-provided housing.

On Tuesday, the evacuation order in the Piedad-Cathedral area was rescinded and residents were allowed to return home beginning the following day. The area is now designated as a "be prepared" zone.

Upper valley residents report relatively minor damage out the road-clogged culverts, some small slides on the road and a tree that damaged the roof of Derek Poinsette's house-but few, if any, have chosen to evacuate. The New Hope Church opened its doors to evacuees, but so far, no one has taken advantage of the space, according to assembly member Paul Rogers.

If a zone is added to the mandatory evacuation list, three sirens will ring out repeatedly and a Nixle alert will be sent out. Evacuees should check in at the school.


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