City and Borough of Juneau Public Works Department clears debris Wednesday morning on Gastineau Avenue. A landslide Monday evening brought down a large tree, which caused damage to homes and a vehicle. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

City and Borough of Juneau Public Works Department clears debris Wednesday morning on Gastineau Avenue. A landslide Monday evening brought down a large tree, which caused damage to homes and a vehicle. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

Juneau man stunned by loss of home, community support

“If you’re going to have your home destroyed, Juneau is the best place to do it.”

Jin Mitchem is still coming to terms with the realities of Monday night’s landslide that brought down trees and debris on Gastineau Avenue.

“Yesterday I was very dizzy, my brain felt fried from stress and sadness, I think I was just in a state of shock. It felt like standing in front of the wreckage,” said Mitchem, a five-year resident of Alaska’s capital city whose home was destroyed. “It looked like something from out of a movie, it didn’t feel like it was from this world yet.”

Mitchem, who is staying with a relative, had owned his home on Gastineau Avenue for less than a year and said if it weren’t for having picked up an extra shift at his job with Amalga Distillery, he’s not sure what the outcome might have been.

“Fortunately, I wasn’t at home at the moment, but I was there about an hour and a half before it happened, so I’m very lucky to be alive,” Mitchem said. “I was at work and I was notified by a neighbor who was asking if I was OK and alive and I was like, ‘What?” I had no idea.”

[City set to begin cleanup after landslide]

Mitchem said once he saw photos from the wreckage, only then did he realize the severity of the situation. Mitchem said the one thing that has been of comfort during this time of loss has been the overwhelming support he’s received from the community.

As of Wednesday afternoon, a GoFundMe campaign, https://www.gofundme.com/f/FallenTrees-destroyed-jins-house, to benefit Mitchem had raised over $33,000 of a $200,000 goal.

“I’m so grateful for the Juneau community,” Mitchem said. “If you’re going to have your home destroyed, Juneau is the best place to do it. I’ve had countless numbers of people reaching out, offering their homes and assistance and love. I’m very grateful to be alive and very grateful to the community.”

According to Mitchem, after speaking with geologists at the site along with the Juneau city attorney, the general consensus was that much of the damage was caused more from falling trees, or rather one large tree that took several trees with it while careening down the hillside.

“A number of trees fell down with a larger tree. Unfortunately, I don’t have landslide insurance, so depending on how it ends up getting framed, there’s some hope that my insurance company can help if it’s framed as a tree fall,” Mitchem said. “It’s not a guarantee either way if I receive any insurance money but there is a slight hope. Essentially, there’s very little mud from the pictures, it’s mostly trees, there’s a tree stabbed through my home into my living room in one of the windows, so there’s not a lot of mud, it’s mostly trees. There’s a little bit of hope of getting a claim, which quite frankly, I didn’t think was at all a possibility. It’s really just uncertain what will come from this financially.”

City and Borough of Juneau emergency program manager Tom Mattice shared similar conclusions regarding falling trees as the cause of damage after crews were able to further assess the scene in the following days.

“It looks as though it’s predominantly a tree fall, a giant tree came out, took the roots out and as it came down the hill it took mud with it, but it’s far more tree debris than mud debris,” Mattice said. “We’re digging into it now but it was definitely a big tree fall and not our typical mudslide event.”

Mattice added that power has been restored mostly to everyone within the area and people have returned back to their homes as crews are confident the event poses no further risk of being widespread. Still he cautioned residents to stay alert as more storms are expected later in the week.

“The power’s back on, all the people are back in their homes, this is really a channelized event, it’s not a widespread event, so it’s really localized behind the few homes it affected, so we don’t really expect anything too widespread, but obviously there are a lot of other channel drainages along the hillside that could release, as well,” Mattice said. “We definitely have another big storm coming, we’re looking at getting another inch of rain tomorrow and then another two inches of rain on Friday and into Saturday, so definitely going to have to pay attention over the incoming days.”

Work in progress

According to CBJ street superintendent Greg Smith, CBJ’s Public Works Department had completed their initial site preparations by Tuesday night and crews started the process of clearing debris within the area early Wednesday morning. Smith added that cleanup efforts have so far gone well and on schedule as crews are working diligently to stay ahead of additional storms.

“We started at 7 a.m. this morning. It’s a tricky debris removal because of the tree fall, it brought down a number of trees with it that are now intertwined, so it’s going to be a slow process to buck and haul,” Smith said. “The goal for today is to clear the road access and make sure we’ve got our power pole reset and have all the folks connected back up to power. After that, there will be further debris removal and then come up with a plan to remove the rest of the debris and mud and then containment in this tree fall zone as best we can for the short term. Also trying to stay prepared for storms coming but doing so as safely as we can.”

People are still asked to avoid the area while clearance crews are working to ensure safety and to allow for work to proceed without hazard or delay. Gastineau Avenue remains closed to everyone except local and emergency traffic from Gold and First streets onward. The staircases at both Decker Way and Rawn Way are also closed to the public but remain accessible for local and emergency foot traffic.

As of 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, any vehicles parked within one block of the debris area from 167 Gastineau Avenue northward were towed to Zach Gordon Youth Center at 396 Whittier St. The towing is not at the expense of the vehicle’s owner and vehicles may be picked up at the owner’s convenience.

Red Cross regional communications director Taylar Sausen said the Red Cross has been successful in assisting some of the families displaced with recovery and continues to remain available for those still in need.

“We were able to provide initial financial assistance to three families that were displaced and we were able to help them with the initial case work and begin that recovery process,” Sausen said. “We’ll be following up with these families and any other families that reach out for assistance and that we deem qualified for assistance.”

• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at jonson.kuhn@juneauempire.com.

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