For much of Sitka, the August 18, 2015 landslide was a wake-up call that even the most settled parts of Alaska remain dynamic — and sometimes dangerous — places. Local leadership found itself in an unprecedented situation, offering comfort to the community while processing the catastrophe themselves.
In part 2 of our 5-part series looking back at the Sitka Landslide, KCAW’s Robert Woolsey spoke with Mayor Mim McConnell about how the community has tried to regain its emotional footing.
McConnell: Thinking back to that time, I had been going through a phase where I was questioning my abilities as Mayor and how much I could really bring to the community. When that happened, [I saw] that need in the community for a figurehead to be that stability and a calming voice, saying, ‘We can get through this. We can do this.’
Woolsey: Where do you think Sitka is in terms of its emotional well-being? There’s one thing about readiness and physical preparedness, but…the other day you were in Maine, but it started to rain here. Kind of heavily. In August. And people aren’t quite back where they were.
McConnell: Well, it’s a loss of innocence. That landslide destroyed any innocence or naïveté about what our land is like here. It was a reality check. ‘Oh, we can have landslides here. They can kill people. We better pay attention. We better learn about this.’ And so I feel like we’ve been on this road of discovery, of ‘Okay, what do we know? What do we need to know? What do we need to know to make decisions about where we want to live?’ And of course that lead into some political decisions and economic decisions. And I think we’re still kind of working our way through that. I don’t think we’re done yet.
Woolsey: Has it affected you personally and the way you look back on the time you served in Sitka?
McConnell: I would say that…it definitely had an impact on me. I have not gone back to that site since all that. I keep thinking, ‘I need to drive up there and go look.’ But I haven’t. I’ve seen it from the air, but I haven’t’ driven up there yet. I think there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel like going and dealing with all that right now. I will at some point. It also had a maturing effect on me as Mayor. I grew up and had to do some hard things and speak to the world about what’s going on here. I had to reach beyond myself to do that.
Municipal administrator Mark Gorman visited the landslide site for the first time three weeks ago. He went to choose the location of a yellow cedar bench, carved in honor of the lives that were lost. Gorman spoke with KCAW’s Emily Kwong about visiting the area on year later.
Gorman: It was very powerful for me because, as anybody who was up there at the time or goes up there now knows, it looks very peaceful and recovered. There’s green grass growing. You cannot imagine the disharmony of the moment of a year ago, yet the ghost of it was very, very present for me, as I was up there feeling…haunted by it. I’ve heard that expression used by others. It’s a very profound feeling of loss up there. And that with time may dissipate, but it’s an emotion felt by many. The first responders, the family members, the community who’d been up there. And maybe with time people will become more comfortable with that.
Kwong: Where do conversations about landslide mitigation stand now?
Gorman: [There’s] a whole discussion about risk mapping Sitka. For example, we know in Kramer where we have mapped that there are high risk zones, but we haven’t defined high risk. Does that mean there’s a high risk a landslide will occur in 50 years? 100 years? Or 1000 years? And what is our risk tolerance and I think that’s something we’re looking at.
Gorman: This community came together in a very profound and potent way. And that still resonates with me. The strength of this community to come together during times of need and tragedy is really quite phenomenal and very empowering. I think collectively it embraced those in most need. And it certainly has instilled in me a sense of immense gratitude to my fellow residents and neighbors in Sitka.
This Thursday (08-16-16) at 12 p.m., the city will commemorate the park bench at the Cross Trail off Kramer avenue. This will be followed by an unveiling of a portrait of William Stortz at 1 p.m. at City Hall.
Click here to see more stories from “Sitka Landslide: A Look Back”