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'Atmospheric river' triggers flooding, landslides across southeastern Alaska

One Alaskan town was covered in 9 feet of mud and debris.
Credit: Matt Boron/Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities via AP
A landslide in Haines, Alaska on Dec. 2.

One Alaskan town was covered in 9 feet of mud and debris after record rainfall triggered landslides, wiped out roadways and prompted evacuations during the middle of the week.

The community of Haines, located about 92 miles north of Juneau, Alaska, was nearly cut off from surrounding areas as the highway connecting the city to Canada was closed and the only road leading to the ferry terminal and barge dock was blocked by a significant landslide, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Six people remain unaccounted for in the landslide, which destroyed four houses after the ground began to give way in the Beach Road area, the Alaska Department of Public Safety reported.

Search and rescue operations were suspended Wednesday evening, with local officials citing "rumbling unstable ground" as the reason efforts were called off.

The city of Haines told Beach Road residents that they were in "immediate danger" and to "evacuate now" following the landslide.

On Wednesday afternoon, a Coast Guard helicopter was launched from Sitka to Haines to provide emergency support following the landslide, and a boat crew was dispatched from Juneau. Two Coast Guard cutters were also making preparations to sail to the area.

"At this point we are aware that damage has occurred in the town of Haines following the report of multiple landslides in the borough," Capt. Stephen White, commander of Coast Guard Sector Juneau, said in a statement. "The scope of the damage is unknown at this time, but we are proactively moving several assets and personnel to provide assistance to local first responders and the residents who may have been impacted by the landslides."

Forecasters say a weather phenomenon known as an "atmospheric river" prompted the deluge.

"As deep tropical moisture slammed into the higher terrain around Juneau, this enhanced the amount of upward motion in the atmosphere and the amount of precipitation that was able to be produced," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Pydynowski said.

"This very heavy rain then resulted in widespread flooding, mudslides and debris flows. In the mountains, this moisture caused snow that has been measured in feet," AccuWeather Meteorologist Ryan Adamson said.

Juneau has recorded over 6 inches of rain during the first two days of December -- a month when they typically receive 5.84 inches in total. On Tuesday, the city beat out its single-day rainfall record of 4.62 inches set on Oct. 10, 1946, as 4.93 inches of rain poured down.

Precipitation is forecast to wind down on Thursday, but more rounds of rainfall and mountain snow are expected to resume in southeastern Alaska by Friday. Given the saturated and unstable nature of the ground, any additional moisture could cause other areas of the earth to give way, leading to more damage.

"Haines is going to be needing lots of prayers," Haines Mayor Douglas Olerud said in a statement. "We have several roads that have washed out, mudslides, and houses flooding. Crews have been working all night, but the amount of rain we are getting is making it difficult for them to address all the problems. Please be patient with each other. These are stressful times but Haines will come together and help each other."