North

Haines, Alaska under state of emergency after heavy rains

A winter storm has been pounding the region since Monday night, with record-breaking levels of precipitation causing flooding, sinkholes, wash-out roads and mudslides that have destroyed homes.

Record-breaking precipitation causing roads to wash out, triggering mudslides that have buried homes

Young Road in Haines, Alaska, photographed around 8 a.m. local time on Dec. 2. Heavy rains have caused roads in town to wash out, cutting off some residents from town as well as access to the airport and ferry dock. (Erik Stevens)

Haines, Alaska has declared a state of emergency as what one expert described as a "historic" storm continues to pound the region, wreaking havoc throughout the borough. 

Heavy rains have washed out roads, flooded neighbourhoods, triggered mudslides that have destroyed homes and created sinkholes across town.  

Haines Avalanche Center director Erik Stevens said the storm began Monday night, and that what started as snowfall turned into rain that hasn't stopped since. 

Typically, a winter storm would hit Haines with about five centimetres of precipitation, he said, or eight centimetres in an "extreme case."

As of Wednesday morning, however, Haines had received nearly 22 centimetres of precipitation in a 36-hour timeframe, with the rain showing no sign of stopping.

And with the ground mostly frozen, the water has nowhere to go.  

"To get six inches in one day is, you know, pretty much double the strongest storms we've seen in recent memory and eight inches in two days is definitely unheard of in the modern record," Stevens said. 

"So it's a really significant storm here, a historic one for sure."

Alekka Fullerton, a public information officer with the Haines Emergency Operations Command, said officials were facing multiple urgent situations — some homes have been lost to landslides, sinkholes have opened up in several neighbourhoods and flooding has caused one water main to burst.  

As well, the road between the airport is impassable, making regular medevacs from Haines, which doesn't have a hospital, impossible. A Coast Guard helicopter had to land in town Wednesday in order to fly someone out. 

On top of that, the storm has knocked out power to several areas. Fullerton said Haines has been using a back-up diesel generator since Tuesday but there are only about 7,000 gallons (26,500  litres) of fuel left in town. There's currently no way to get any more, she said, because the road to the ferry dock is washed out. 

At least two evacuations were underway Wednesday afternoon, according to the Haines Borough Government Facebook page — the police department was getting residents on Lutak Spur Road out by boat, and assisting residents fleeing Beach Road after a major landslide. 

A search-and-rescue effort was also launched at Beach Road, with the government writing that a helicopter and boats were on the way to assist.

Stevens himself was "totally trapped" at home; he lives on the hillside above town, and said the road leading to his home had been "completely destroyed," meaning the only way he can get into town is by foot.  

Fullerton, meanwhile, said she had personal experience with a sinkhole on her way to work — as she pulled out of her driveway, her vehicle slipped into a crevice and stopped at a 45-degree angle. 

"And if I didn't have my trusty Land Cruiser with my granny gear, and I have a relatively lead foot when needed, I don't think I could have gotten out of it," she said. 

"It's very scary and that's happening all over town, we're seeing sinkholes open up that are very serious and very dangerous." 

"Please stay home," she urged residents. "Don't go out, let our public works do what they can do…. We're just encouraging people to stay home and take care of themselves, check in on a neighbour and wait this out.

"That's all we can do." 

With files from Mike Rudyk

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