I’m confident I speak for Alaskans everywhere when I say that our hearts go out to the people of Southeast Alaska. In past weeks, torrential rain and winds approaching hurricane speeds have caused widespread damage up and down the Panhandle.
No community has been more heavily impacted than Haines. Dozens of mudslides along the road between downtown and the ferry terminal have forced scores of Alaskans into shelters or temporary living arrangements. Many families have not been able to return to their homes to assess the damage, and some are facing the prospect of rebuilding their lives.
Tragically, the slides are believed to have claimed the lives of Alaskans David Simmons and Jenae Larson. By all accounts, both lived their lives with distinction. David, a Fulbright scholar who recently took over the Haines Economic Development Corporation, spent the past few months helping businesses weather the pandemic. Jenae, a life-long resident of Haines, had just embarked on her journey as an educator. Both will be dearly missed.
In response to this crisis, I have declared a region-wide disaster. This process is anticipated to lead to a presidential disaster declaration, making available a number of federal relief programs to residents and local governments.
In the meantime, the state will continue its close coordination with local communities. From the very start, state assets ranging from law enforcement officers, to heavy equipment operators, to search and rescue teams have worked side-by-side with local responders. Meanwhile, specialized responders, including geologists and LIDAR operators, are working to map the mountainsides and assess ongoing risks.
These efforts are intended to complement the work of local officials. Haines Mayor Doug Olerud and Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton, both of whom recently took office, have done stellar work managing the situation on the ground. First responders, many of whom volunteered from neighboring communities, have worked tirelessly through snow, ice, and rain to keep their neighbors safe.
I also would like to thank the many responders who have been operating in emergency mode for nearly 10 consecutive months. Despite this burden, these heroes continue to give their full effort to the crisis in Southeast Alaska. From road crews reaching stranded residents, to park rangers augmenting local law enforcement, to information officers putting in long hours to keep the public informed, Alaska is lucky to have these dedicated public servants on our side.
It’s important to know that the immediate danger has not yet passed for many Southeast communities. The Department of Natural Resources continues to assess landslide potential and dam integrity throughout the region on a daily basis. For as long as the danger persists, the state’s emergency personnel will continue to assist these communities.
Recovering from an event of this magnitude will not be quick or easy, but Alaskans are no strangers to rebuilding. As we move from active response operations to recovery, know that I am fully committed to seeing this restoration effort through to the end.
Those looking to lend a helping hand can donate to The Salvation Army’s region-wide response effort at salarmy.us/HainesEDS. In addition, KHNS FM has compiled a list of assistance opportunities on its website.
Mike Dunleavy is the 12th governor of Alaska.