ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Authorities had not started clearing tons of logs and mud to search for three men believed buried by a landslide because the debris that crashed into a southeast Alaska town was too unstable Wednesday and posed a danger.
Crews in Sitka unsuccessfully tried to stabilize the ground after part of a mountain gave way and swept tree-tangled muck into a construction site Tuesday. Workers tried using heavy equipment to divert stream water washing over the debris, which two geologists were reviewing to see how responders can safely begin searching for the missing men, officials said.
Cloud cover over the mountain also slowed the effort by preventing an aerial view of the slide, which authorities believe killed city building inspector William Stortz and brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz.
"We don't want to put additional people in harm's way and compound the problem," said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
But crews were "searching carefully" where they could, city spokesman Ken Fate said.
Gov. Bill Walker toured the area Wednesday to see the damage from six landslides that crashed into different parts of the city Tuesday after 2 1/2 inches of rain fell in 24 hours.
A newly built home at the construction site was destroyed, and another was damaged, Sitka fire spokeswoman Sara Peterson said. Some other nearby homes were evacuated, but she did not know how many residences or people were affected.
Homes in town have been flooded, and there were reports of people not being able to reach their houses or leave their neighborhood, Zidek said.
Chris Harshey, who is a carpenter, was working on a nearby home when he heard the trees and earth fall from the mountain.
"All of a sudden, I heard crackling and crumbling, and then the lights flickered," he told the Daily Sitka Sentinel.
Harshey went outside to investigate and saw "a sea of large logs, mud, more logs and a slurry of muddy debris." The slide destroyed a home about 200 yards above him and damaged another home closer to him.
The entire landslide lasted about four minutes, he said.
Longtime Sitka resident Nolan Simpson said he toured parts of town and saw one home where the driveway was gone, replaced by a stream washing through it. He passed the Indian River and said it was roaring.
The landslide at the construction site was especially heartbreaking, he said.
"It's pretty devastating on how fast something like this can happen," Simpson, a retired commercial fisherman, said in a phone interview from a saloon.
The city of more than 9,000 people declared a state of emergency. Sitka, almost 600 miles southeast of Anchorage, sees heavy rain throughout the year and more was expected.
Heavy rain was blamed for a major landslide in September near the town that wiped out hundreds of thousands of dollars in watershed-restoration projects. The rain also damaged a footbridge and trails, including one that had been repaired after flooding in January 2014.
A year earlier, two people at a U.S. Forest Service cabin near Sitka escaped moments before part of a mountain slid down.
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