Workers intensify search for body after Alaska landslides

AP News
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Posted: Aug 21, 2015 8:11 PM
Workers intensify search for body after Alaska landslides

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The search for a third man believed buried in landslide debris in Alaska took on renewed urgency Friday, with rain in the forecast expected to increase the risk of more slides.

The coastal town of Sitka was expected to get 2 to 3 inches of rain over several days, beginning Friday evening, officials said.

A voluntary evacuation request was issued for some residential areas in the vicinity of the debris, and a church will serve as a temporary shelter for displaced residents.

"We cannot say what effect the rain will have on the already weakened slide area," Deputy Sitka Fire Chief Al Stevens said in a statement. "The most prudent thing we can do is back-off and see how the slide area handles the incoming rains."

Stevens said he would pull searchers out of the neighborhood to avoid further risks from wet weather.

The rain was forecast as the town tries to dry out after six landslides occurred Tuesday when 2 1/2 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. Workers were also trying to improve drainage at the site.

The bodies of brothers Elmer, 26, and Ulises Diaz, 25, were found in the debris of logs and muck earlier this week.

The brothers were painting a new house at a construction site when the landslides struck. Searchers were still looking for city building official William Stortz, 62, who also went missing in the debris.

National Weather Service meteorologist Joel Curtis said the coming rain could be spread over a much longer timeframe than the deluge that preceded the earlier landslides. Strong winds also were expected, he said.

"So it'll have a little time, hopefully, for the water to shed off," state Department of Transportation geologist Mitch McDonald said of the less intense rain that is expected.

The search for bodies has been slow because the debris is unstable and wet. Stevens said crews continue to pick through one log at a time.

Cadaver dogs helped lead rescuers to the bodies of the brothers and were effective in pinpointing other areas of interest in the debris field in the mountain community of about 9,000 people located 600 miles southeast of Anchorage.

The most devastating landslide started at an elevation of 1,400 feet and slammed into the new house under construction about 1,000 feet lower.

Workers have been able to improve drainage in the debris field and cut troughs in the slide area. The efforts helped solidify the mud, at least along the northern perimeter where the body-recovery effort was centered.

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Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Anchorage.

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