Landslide study could save lives, alert people to danger but NC lawmakers stopped funding it
The night the mountain crashed into the valley, Susan Tine stood near a window and watched while rain turned her backyard into “a little lake,” she said, that began to rise as high as a picnic table. The river at the end of her property overflowed, and then a tree floated by.
“Roots, the whole deal,” she said, and that’s how it began.
She’d been living here with her husband for 17 years, in a brick split-level ranch off of U.S. 176. They’d come from Long Island, seeking escape from the bustle. They found solitude in the Valhalla Valley in Polk County, near the South Carolina border, where the Piedmont transforms into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Tine knew the valley as a serene, pretty place. Yet she didn't know that geologists considered the area an ideal environment for the natural violence that transpired on May 18, when the floating tree served as an ominous prelude. Why Tine, and others in the valley, were unaware of dangers obvious to experts is a question that has lingered after deadly landslides in the North Carolina mountains.
"I was stunned, by the whole thing," Tine said, recounting the night. Soon after she watched the tree float past, there was “a boom,” she said – a whoosh of water, mud, rocks and more trees.
It flowed down Warrior Mountain at a decline of approximately 60 degrees, between 25 and 30 miles per hour. The earthen path eventually spanned nearly a half-mile, and grew strong enough to uproot pines and move boulders heavier than cars.
The destructive trail began near the top of the mountain. It ended in the valley, next to Tine’s house. She and her husband emerged from it that night. She looked across the street, toward the neighbor’s house that sat up on the hillside.
“And half of it was gone,” she said.
With some neighbors, Tine tried to make her way there. They climbed over fallen trees, the mud sucking at their shoes. They saw a flashing light. Tine learned later that it was Leon Case searching for his wife, Patricia, was in the garage when it collapsed.
Leon kept searching, Tine said, climbing through and over everything that the mountain and the rain had deposited in what was left of his house, and around it. Eventually he made his way down the hill. Tine said he arrived without his shorts and shoes, which had been lost in the muck.
“He was so monotone, in shock,” Tine said. “Just looked, turned and said, ‘I think my wife is dead.’”
Emergency rescuers recovered Patricia Case’s body the next morning. She left behind her husband, two grown daughters, four grandchildren. Her obituary described her as “a gentle soul” whose “laughter was contagious.” She was 59, and the first of three people who in the past two weeks have died in the western part of the state amid landslides that have resulted from two tropical weather systems.
In addition to Patricia Case, two people died on Wednesday in Boone when a landslide led to the collapse of their home. The names of the victims haven’t yet been released. The three fatalities have made the past 12 days the state’s deadliest landslide event since 2004, when the deaths of five people in Macon County spurred state legislators to action.
They directed the North Carolina Geological Survey to create landslide hazard maps in 19 mountain counties. The work would have taken nearly two decades to complete, about a year per county. Yet the geologists who were a part of the initiative, led by Rick Wooten, a state geologist who specializes in mapping in geohazards, mapped only four counties before the state ceased funding.
And so while families and communities are mourning the loss of loved ones, Wooten and other geologists have borne an emotional weight of their own amid a haunting question: Would lives have been saved if North Carolina would have allowed their work to continue?
Wooten, a soft-spoken, white-bearded and bespectacled man of 66, carried that question with him last week to the Polk County landslide site. In the early morning hours after it happened, leaving Leon Case a widower, destroying at least two homes and damaging more than a dozen more and trapping dozens in a restaurant while Warrior Mountain came down around them, Wooten’s phone rang.
It was 4:30 a.m., he said, and his boss, Kenneth Taylor, the state geologist, needed Wooten in Polk County immediately. He drove 45 minutes from Asheville, where he is based, and his assignment was to make sure that the area was stable enough for rescuers to search for people – for Patricia Case, who’d been lost to the mud, and also others who might be trapped in their homes.
Wooten, who has worked for the state since 1990, has long grown accustomed to these calls. Since 2011, he said, he and other geologists who once worked with the mapping project have responded to more than 200 landslides in Western North Carolina. The year 2011 sticks with him because that’s when the landslide mapping project ended, its modest funding squeezed out of the state budget.
“A lot of things came together at once,” Wooten said on the Friday before Memorial Day, describing how the mapping project disappeared. He was back in Polk County to gain more understanding of what happened there, but it was natural for him to wonder how things might have been different if the mapping project had continued uninterrupted.
He and his colleagues at the time called themselves “Team Slide.” They spent many days in the field, studying the technical aspects of the land before them – the angles, the slope, how they reacted to certain amounts of rainfall. The greater mission was always the same: to prevent deaths, and to create data that would help officials warn of danger in hazardous areas.
Days like these, in the aftermath of disaster, were always wrought with difficult questions about what might have been had Team Slide remained intact. Maybe Polk County would have been mapped by now. Maybe officials would have used that data to inform residents that they could be at risk. Maybe, given the forecast of unrelenting rain, and the time to evacuate before conditions deteriorated, Patricia Case could have been saved.
Now, though, the hypothetical questions gave way to disappointment, with Wooten left to explain how his team was disbanded less than a quarter of the way through its mission. The economic downturn undoubtedly played a role, he said, but, then again, the mapping team, in which Wooten led a staff of six, operated on a modest annual budget of about $600,000.
More than the money, or the relative lack of it, what doomed Wooten’s team was what he described as “a lot of anti-regulatory sentiment” in state government – a sentiment that coincided with a period in which the mapping team began to build momentum. Between 2005 and 2010, Team Slide completed landslide hazard maps in Buncombe, Henderson, Macon and Watauga counties.
The purpose of the maps was to show which parts of those counties were most prone to landslides, the common term that describes what geologists most often call “debris flows.” If a landslide, or debris flow, has happened in one particular area of one particular slope, either on the side of a mountain or a hill, chances are high that it will happen again, and keep happening, over decades and centuries.
Indeed, the debris flows that tore down the mountain in Polk County followed familiar, winding paths, its grooves established over the decades, if not centuries, by the slides that came before. The goal of the mapping project was to identify those tracks in the North Carolina mountains and, eventually, to create data that could help warn those in the line of destruction.
It wasn’t long, though, before the geologists’ hopes and goals met a formidable challenge: the desire to develop attractive mountainside land, and the desire for the value of that land to grow. One of Wooten’s former colleagues, a geologist named Jennifer Bauer, said the conflict between the intent of the maps and how some perceived them created “a lot of misunderstanding.”
“When people were looking at them, they weren’t asking us what they meant,” said Bauer, who worked with Wooten on the landslide mapping team. “We didn’t have the opportunity to communicate all of what the maps mean, so people looked at them, made their own conclusions and then said, 'Well I’m against them, because they may impact property values, or they may impact development.'”
When the state stopped funding the mapping team in 2011, Bauer was laid off. For months she’d been preparing for the inevitable, and she started her own private practice, which provides hazard mapping and property evaluation to private landowners, but also to counties who want the work done. Jackson County was next in line to be mapped when the state removed funding, and so it commissioned Bauer’s company to complete a hazard map of the county.
'People just don't know'
On the Friday before Memorial Day, Bauer traveled with Wooten to Polk County. Torrential rains and thunderstorms kept them in a park, under a shelter, throughout the afternoon. They feared the possibility of more slides. The ground continued to become saturated. A few days later, a tree fell on a television van, killing two South Carolina journalists who’d come to document the destruction.
While the rain pounded a tin roof that kept them dry, Bauer and Wooten studied maps of landslides on their heavy-duty laptops, insulated in thick plastic. Each red dot on the screen represented a landslide. Across the North Carolina mountains, there were hundreds of those dots, many of them clustered diagonally along the Blue Ridge escarpment, where steep slopes signal the mountains’ rise.
The escarpment is prone to landslides because of its topography, and some areas are more vulnerable than others. In Polk County, Wooten said, the Valhalla Valley is particularly vulnerable, because it cuts between two steep mountainside angles. A prospective homeowner, or someone taking a leisurely drive down U.S. 176, might see tranquility in the valley. That’s what Tine, the neighbor of Patricia Case, often saw.
“I love the valley – it’s beautiful, the sun comes through the trees, it’s fabulous,” she said, contrasting the scene to the aftermath of the landslides. “And I just never knew that that would ever happen. But nobody ever does.”
Had Wooten and his team mapped Polk County, though, the public might have known. Instead the fear of property devaluation, and of regulations interfering with building, brought an end.
“People, I think, had the perception that if we had landslide maps everywhere then that means that there would be regulations everywhere, and they were anti-regulation,” Bauer said. “So they just said, 'Well let’s get rid of the mapping, and then we don’t have to worry about regulations.' I mean, the landslide hazard still exists. People just don’t know about it.”
For the first time in seven years, since the state ceased funding Team Slide, there’s hope that might change. A proposal of the state budget, released on Monday, includes $3.6 million for the Department of Environmental Quality to re-start the landslide mapping program.
Wooten said he was unaware of the state putting money back in the budget for landslide mapping. He reacted to the possibility of its coming to fruition with caution.
“We’ve seen the same situation too many times,” he said. “Like, once is enough. But we’ve seen these things several times. We should be able to do better.”
Perhaps recent events can represent a turning point. Wooten drove west on U.S. 176, through the area that had suffered the most damage. The ruins of the Case house, with a twisted yellow children’s slide sitting out front, caked in mud, came into view on the right. The only thing that seemed to be intact on the entire property was a large white cross standing near the road: “Jesus Saves,” it said.
Across the street was another home that seemed to be destroyed, and not far from there stood the restaurant, the Caro-Mi Dining Room, where customers remained overnight during the slides, stuck until rescue crews came the next morning. Most of the damage in Polk County occurred over a stretch of about a half-mile, and, in that stretch Wooten, after a ride in a helicopter, identified six landslides, the shortest of which spanned about 1,500 feet. One of them deposited a boulder near a front yard. Wooten estimated the boulder weighed almost 4 tons.
“It could be a good historical marker, actually,” he said.
'I am evacuating'
So, too, could these recent landslides, if they lead to the kind of change Wooten and others seek. Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican who pushed for the restored funding, said recently that “nothing should be a surprise” in the western part of the state as it relates to landslides. And yet many in Polk County were surprised, which is part of the reason why McGrady and others have favored restoring the funding for mapping.
“After Polk County,” he said, “I suspect you’re going to have a lot of places that will say it’s good to have that information.”
Nearly a decade after the state ceased funding the landslide mapping project, McGrady said criticism surrounding the maps has evolved. Some of the counties that had no land use planning rules a decade ago now do, making hazard maps more palatable, McGrady said.
Some counties, cities and towns, like Asheville and Boone, already have regulations requiring geotechnical assessments to determine whether it’s safe to build in certain areas. The continuation of the mapping project could help other places establish similar guidelines.
“If you’re a private landowner, or looking to buy land and wondering if that particular piece of land is safe, it’s only fair that people are able to make educated decisions,” said Brad Johnson, a geologist and the incoming chair of environmental studies at Davidson College.
Mapping landslide hazard areas can be a complicated science built on a simple truth: “If a landslide happened there in the past,” Johnson said, “it’s probably going to again.”
Yet even that knowledge, and the maps, are no guarantee of safety. The deaths in Watauga County, where a landslide led to a gas explosion that caused a house to collapse, speak to the challenge of implementing the next steps beyond the mapping – the challenge of turning data that a geologist could clearly understand into a warning system.
“They’re an additional tool,” Autumn Radcliff, the Henderson County planning director, said of the landslide hazard maps that were completed in her county. “They’re a great deal of data, but we have proceeded with caution because it is complex data. Somebody has to have an understanding of what they’re looking at before they jump to conclusions.”
First, though, there has to be something to look at, and that starts with the work that Wooten and his team were doing, or attempting to do, before it was discontinued. He left Polk County on a recent Friday with a sense of resignation, that the human toll of what happened there – both the loss of life and of property – was preventable.
Down the road, around a few curves on U.S. 176, Tine and her neighbors were still digging out, and coming to terms with what had happened. It’d been almost a week since the mountain came down upon them and left the neighborhood, she said, “like a war zone – like they blew this place up.” Now the forecast called again for heavy rain, and county officials were doing what they didn’t know to do days earlier: recommending evacuation.
A neighbor drove past Tine’s house, stopping to ask if she’d be leaving.
“I am evacuating,” she said, shouting back toward the car. “Yes I am.”
Before the landslides, there’d been no warning, no calls to evacuate, no real understanding, among the people who lived on this stretch of highway, that they should leave. Now Tine, for one, knew better. With more relentless rain on the way, she saw no reason to stick around to see what might happen.