Cleanup underway after trees topple into Alaska road, bay

Efforts are underway to clear a road where dozens of fully grown evergreen trees as well as rocks and dirt toppled into an Alaska bay, covering the roadway and cutting off road access for scores of people

ByMARK THIESSEN Associated Press
May 09, 2022, 11:20 PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Efforts were underway Monday to clear a road where dozens of fully grown evergreen trees as well as rocks and dirt toppled into an Alaska bay, sending onlookers running and cutting off road access for scores of people.

No injuries were reported in the Saturday evening landslide about a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) south of downtown Seward, a cruise ship destination community on the Kenai Peninsula, City Manager Janette Bower said.

But some travelers had a fright. Traffic was already stopped nearby because of smaller rocks on the road when the chunk of hillside nearly as wide as a football field gave way.

“You can hear the whooshing of the rocks and earth and then as soon as the trees started falling, then we all knew it was getting serious,” said Josh Gray, who was among those waiting for the all-clear, along with his wife Nikki Holmes.

Gray said he had been watching sea lions float in the Resurrection Bay when he looked up and saw the trees falling “like dominoes” down the slope, tumbling across the road and plunging into the water.

“That was pretty alarming,” he said.

“My wife was smart to just run back to the car,” he said. “I was dumb enough to be there with phone, videoing it.”

The slide measured 200 feet (61 meters) long by 300 feet (91 meters) wide and could take up to two weeks to clear, Bower estimated.

It has prevented about 200 residents and tourists in the Lowell Point area from reaching Seward. Lowell point is a tiny community directly south of the slide on the west side of Resurrection Bay, a 17-mile (27-kilometer) long body of water that leads to the Gulf of Alaska.

“There are a lot of cool things going on,” Bower said of efforts to make sure those stranded are able to get back and forth to Seward, including a water taxi and landing crafts. “They’re helping, so a lot of great community coming-together to get things done.”

A private contractor was handling the removal process and planned to use heavy equipment to clear the debris at the top first, working down to the roadway, Bower said. Part of the work has created additional slides within the original slide, slowing the process.

Before the landslide, a police officer and a city loader were on scene to move rocks, some of which were the size of basketballs, before one with a diameter of about 4 feet (1.22 meters) landed near the loader, Gray said.

Gray and his wife had driven about 125 miles (201 kilometers) south from Anchorage for a birthday party on the other side of the slide. They had just gone to a grocery store for ingredients for the batter to deep fry the fresh halibut their friends had caught earlier in the day. Their friends had made it through the rock fall area 15 minutes earlier.

Gray said all of a sudden, the loader began backing up, and he believes the driver “started to get a sense that things are still pretty active,” he said.

Gray estimated the loader was moving at maybe 4 mph (6 kph) but was able to clear the path “just in time."

"Things really picked up quickly,” he said, just before the slope seemed to collapse before his eyes.

Seward has not had heavy rain recently or other normal conditions that would trigger a landslide, prompting the state geologist to visit the site and assess conditions, Bower said. Torrential downpours in December 2020 triggered landslides in Haines that killed two people.

Gray said he eventually got in the car, and he and his wife retreated to the mainland, where they saw the scope of the slide.

“You know, our plans were minorly inconvenienced for the evening, but there’s a lot of residents that live out there and businesses that operate out there that are going to be impacted for a long time, so that’s pretty unfortunate,” he said.

Others also caught the dramatic slide on their phones. Besides posting it widely on social media, they also shared it with city officials.

“We’re really thankful for that video because that was able to confirm that there was no one in the slide,” Bower said.

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