General

Dozens of cars still stuck behind Seward landslide as road clearance works begin

Dozens of cars still stuck behind Seward landslide as road clearance works begin

Excavators remove debris from a landslide that blocked Seward’s access to Lowell Point (Photo Courtesy of James Unrein)

Excavators worked all day Monday to begin clearing spruce, mud and boulders that tumbled down the slope on Saturday night, blocking the only road access from Lowell Point to Seward.

The slide also forced tourists to make tough choices, entrepreneurs scramble to accommodate, and forced local Alaskans to figure out how to save their weekend getaways.

“It has a huge financial impact,” said Chance Miller, owner of Miller’s Landing in Lowell Point. “And that’s just for now.”

The business includes a campground, RV park, and kayak rentals. And until the landslide is fixed, there’s no other way to get there than by boat. Miller said his company set up a water taxi system within hours of the slide, which struck at 7:45 p.m. Saturday. It charges $25 each way for vacationers, but returned stranded customers to Seward for free, cutting their overhead costs.

A city contractor began clearing rubble on Monday after the city decided there was no immediate risk of another major slide. The process could take at least two weeks if everything goes smoothly, said Seward City Clerk Brenda Balou.

Balou said the excavators worked “gently” to clear the 300-meter pile of trees, dirt and boulders from the road, which hug the side of the mountains next to Resurrection Bay.

“They shovel soil, move it, push it away,” she said Monday afternoon from the road.

“They’re trying to create a solid ramp so other equipment can get up and they can reduce some of the debris that’s above them.”

Kipp Wilkinson celebrated his 29th birthday in Lowell Point with a smaller than expected crowd after some of his friends got trapped in Seward when a landslide blocked the only road to Lowell Point (photo courtesy of Kipp Wilkinson)

Meanwhile, about 40 cars are stuck on the other side of the slide in the Lowell Point area. That includes a couple who were part of a planned birthday party for 29-year-old Kipp Wilkinson.

After a day of fishing, Wilkinson drove from town in Seward to Lowell Point on Saturday around 7 p.m. to set up a party. He made it past the slide area just in time.

“There were some boulders there that we drove past and about 30 minutes later we got a call from our friends saying they weren’t going to make it,” he said.

They made the most of that evening.

“We had such a good time. We had all the beer. We had all fresh fish. The only thing we didn’t have was tartar sauce,’ he said.

Wilkinson said he took a water taxi to Seward on Sunday afternoon and drove back to Anchorage, where he lives.

Operators of companies such as Lynda Paquette, who runs cabins for Angels Rest cabins in Lowell Point, said out-of-state tourists also needed to adapt quickly. A family visit had to figure out a way to catch their flight the next day in Anchorage.

“They left their rental car here and checked out and then took the water taxi,” she said.

“They had to spend $400 on PJS Taxi to get from Seward to Anchorage.”

A landslide crosses a road with people in yellow vests in front
Inspectors look at the Lowell Point landslide (photo courtesy of James Unrein)

Paquette said some visitors who booked stays for the next few days or weeks embraced the adventure of an extra water taxi ride. But others were not so happy and demanded refunds.

She said the landslide is another blow to the company after three tough years, starting with major wildfires in 2019 and then the COVID pandemic.

“I feel more tired than resilient at the moment,” she said.

Entrepreneurs say landslides are nothing new to the area, but they usually happen after heavy rainfall. This slide came seemingly without warning, except for a smaller slide that fell earlier in the day on Saturday.

Scientists are trying to figure out the cause.

“The current thinking is that with all the snowfall we’ve had over the winter, and the past few days, the temperatures have gotten very, very warm and a lot of snow has melted,” says De Anne. Stevens, chief of the state’s geological engineering division.

Stevens, who is based in Fairbanks, has analyzed photos of the slide and spoken to scientists on the ground and says there is no imminent threat of another large slide.

Unfortunately for entrepreneurs — and recreationists — landslides could become more frequent in the coming decades due to climate change, Stevens said.

“It will likely be a similar situation to what we’re seeing over many parts of Alaska, where landslides are likely to occur, perhaps more frequently, largely again, due to precipitation and warmer temperatures,” she said.

A landslide seen from above cutting through spruce trees
Photo of the city of Seward

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