The Green Scene: Finding stable ground in landslide country

Every year, at least one damaging landslide occurs in Western North Carolina. Nikki Donin knows that statistic up close and personal: On Jan. 7, tons of earth swept down the hillside and crushed her parents’ Maggie Valley home—with them in it. Her father recalls waking up to find the roof on top of him and his wife calling for help. They scrambled out, surviving with assorted bumps, bruises and one broken nose (her dad’s).

But in 2003—in the same Wild Acres subdivision—Patricia “Trish” Jones wasn’t so lucky. She died in a December slide that may have been triggered by a leaking water line that saturated the soil above her house. In the Donins’ case, there’d been more than 4 inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period, but the fault may not all lie with Mother Nature. “This was not an act of God but an act of greed,” says Nikki.

As early as 2005, both Haywood County erosion-control officials and a private engineering firm had warned her parents’ neighbors, the McAloons, that their property was prone to sliding (see “Searching for Clarity After Muddy Disaster,” Jan. 14 Smoky Mountain News). But Haywood’s steep-slope ordinance, adopted in 2006, hadn’t taken effect yet, and the county took no further action. So the McAloons built their house without addressing the slope problem—and the Donins, knowing nothing about the situation, subsequently built their own home down below.

“This could have been prevented,” says Donin. “But no one had to tell us anything [when we built], though everyone knew it was wrong.”

Matchstick house: A Jan. 7 mudslide swept down the steep hillside (top right), plowed through the trees and across the creek, and slammed into the Donins’ home, driving it another 100 feet downhill and reducing it to a pile of rubble. Photo courtesy N.C. Geological Survey

To make matters worse, the Donins had been in the Wild Acres home only two months. They’d planned either to retire there or sell it, says Nikki, but after both she and her parents lost their homes in south Florida in the housing crash, Nikki relocated to Black Mountain with her two young children, and her parents wound up in Wild Acres. Then the slide struck.

“We’re all sort of shell-shocked,” says Donin. Her parents, who look like “they were dragged down the street by an 18-wheeler,” have moved in with her, but it’s cramped and they’re having trouble sleeping. They’re also grappling with the fact that home insurance doesn’t cover landslides.

“If our neighbors had done what they were supposed to do, if regulators had stepped up, if there were a minimum level of safety standards, this wouldn’t have happened,” Donin maintains. She wants to know why state legislators have yet to adopt minimum standards. “People say, ‘You built your house shoddily and on a steep slope.’ But it wasn’t our land that slid, and [no] house, unless it were bombproof, would have made it through that slide,” Donin declares.

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill wants to get such a law passed. Last year, he co-sponsored House Bill 1756, the Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act. But it stalled in committee, opposed by the North Carolina Home Builders Association and the North Carolina Association of Realtors, Rapp says. This year, he is optimistic he’ll sway them over. “We’ve had enough of these slides that we can’t say it’s not an issue,” he believes.

State geologist Rick Wooten leads the survey team that’s mapping WNC counties for past landslide activity and present dangers. State legislators authorized the project following a series of landslides in the aftermath of hurricanes Ivan and Frances in 2004; five people in Peeks Creek in Macon County were killed in a landslide caused by the heavy rains.

Macon and Watauga counties have been mapped so far, and Buncombe is nearly completed, Wooten reports. His Swannanoa-based team has identified thousands of debris fields in Watauga County, where a 1940s hurricane caused heavy flooding, landslides and more than a dozen deaths. Past slides “are good indications for where future ones will occur,” notes Wooten, “but we don’t know enough to tell when they’ll happen again.”

Still, when the rains came on Jan. 7, Wooten says his team “had our antennae up,” and while it usually take a bit more rain to cause landslides, the Wild Acres slide didn’t come as a total surprise. “It takes less rain to trigger slides on altered slopes than on natural ones,” says Wooten.

As for Buncombe County, there’s clear evidence of past slides in the Bent Creek and Craggy areas, says Wooten, adding, “There’s actually a lot of stable ground in Buncombe County.”

Nonetheless, Buncombe is one of the few WNC counties that have steep-slope ordinances. “It’s time that we set minimum safety standards for all the counties, designed to protect consumers,” says Rapp.

He figures he needs just 61 votes to get his bill passed this year.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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