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Landslide slowly rolls over homes

BY SUSAN KIM | Kelso, WA | October 23, 1998

In the small hillside community of Aldercrest, a crack in the driveway is more than an everyday nuisance. More than likely it's an

early signal you'll lose your home to a slow-moving but crushing landslide that's been descending on the neighborhood since


Fifty-five of the 135 families in the subdivision have been evacuated, with 45 more on standby. Only 35 houses remain unaffected --

for now. The slide has swept away homes, covered roads, and broken water and power lines, despite the city's efforts to contain it

with escarpments and ditches.

When residents see water popping through the ground, they know yet another line has snapped. The city has set up temporary

above-ground utility lines so residents can get water and power. Higher-than-average rainfall on already saturated clay soil has

aggravated the precarious conditions.

Last week President Clinton approved the use of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for residents who have

lost their homes. Local churches and the Red Cross are also providing assistance to displaced families. Currently all evacuated

families are living with friends or relatives until they can arrange temporary housing.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is also offering low-interest loans for residential and personal property losses not covered by


Meanwhile residents who remain are anxiously watching for early signs that they'll be next. If they hear cracking in the night, they

wonder if it's just typical home settlement or something worse. Cheryl Stonier has noticed the space between her driveway and her

home is growing. "We keep looking at cracks in the driveway and new bumps in the yard -- and we ask ourselves 'now was that

there before?' "

Stonier, who is the secretary at the First United Methodist Church in Kelso, remembers one neighbor's house simply sliding off its

foundation, and other neighbors who found huge cracks in their driveways. "We're just waiting to see what happens," she said.

LaJuan Gutenberger, who attends the Longview Nazarene Church in Kelso, said that the landslide has been a sermon topic for most

local churches, including her own. "Most people have family or friends in that neighborhood if they don't live there themselves. This

is one of those occurrences that you don't think will happen in your lifetime. But it has! We have all learned that you have to be

prepared that, someday, it's going to be your turn."

Deep cracks, once slicing downward through the horse-shoe shaped neighborhood, have begun to zigzag straight across as well.

The neighborhood is situated among 300-foot rolling hills near the Coweeman River.

Residents, civil engineers, and construction experts alike are marveling at the extent of the slide, even though they live in an area

where landslides are fairly common, and where the marks of old slides are constant reminders.

"We've had a couple of others caused by highway cuts, but this one is natural, and I am surprised at the extent of it," said Jim

Hodges, director of Hard Hats for Christ, an organization of skilled builders and tradespeople who volunteer to repair and rebuild

homes for those in need. "Once this started there was nothing they could do about it. I don't think the laws were strict enough when

they built the community."

Stonier said that, in the past two years, the value of her home has halved. "We had no idea when we purchased our home six years

ago," she said. Banyon Road, a main route skirting the community, has been permanently closed because parts of it slid away.

Even if people remain unaffected, they stand little chance of selling their homes and moving away as housing values in the

community plummet. Homes not directly in the line of the slide are often damaged by downed trees or by shifting ground that

cracks the foundation.

"It's terrible for the people who have lost their homes," said John Claypool, an appraiser who lives in Kelso. "But it's also terrible for

the people who are left. They have little chance of marketing their property. And, for many of them, that home is their nest egg for


Bill Booth, who has operated a home repair business in Kelso for more than a decade, said he remembers disputes over building the

subdivision in the first place. "There were several geological studies done, and several recommended not building there. Some

showed it was okay. But many of us think it never should have been built," he said. "There have been slides like this in the past, and

we've always been able to find solutions. But this one is so much bigger."

An engineering study commissioned by the city showed that the landslide is unlikely to be stabilized. Firefighters have already

hand-carried letters to residents advising them of potential danger. The Red Cross has distributed packets that suggest they stock up

on water, batteries, flashlights, medicines, and blankets.

Containing the landslide has sapped city resources and personnel, said Randy Johnson from the City of Kelso Public Works

Department. "We'd been trying to maintain the road and the utilities but we just couldn't keep up with it," he said.

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