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Sunday, August 1, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Monster Mudslide Slowly Swallows A Kelso Neighborhood

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

KELSO - To get a sense of the devastation unleashed by federal disaster number DR1255, think sandbox.

An 80-acre sandbox, roughly the size of Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, in which the forces of nature have kneaded and shoved the ground, taking with it everything on top - houses, trees, roads, gardens, utility poles and sewer pipes.

The earth has been moving in the Aldercrest neighborhood for the past 18 months. What used to be a middle-class, orderly community of 137 houses, some with vistas of the Columbia River Valley and some with neighborhood deer that would amble about the yards, is now gone. Or soon will be.

Geologists say the entire area will be unlivable or inaccessible in five years, making it the second-worst urban landslide in U.S. history in terms of property lost. The worst was a 1956 landslide south of Los Angeles that destroyed 160 homes.

In one section of the slide, which looks like an enormous stream of oatmeal, slabs of concrete foundation, blacktop and chunks of roof are the only hints that a neighborhood once existed.

In a nearby cul-de-sac, houses, with their sagging rhododendrons, stand deserted. Many have been stripped of kitchen cabinets and front doors, some taken by owners desperate to save whatever they could, others stolen or smashed by vandals.

Half the houses in the neighborhood have been been lost to the landslide. Nearly all the remaining homes have been damaged, and some of those are still occupied. One house has been moved; a second is in the process of being relocated.

No lives have been lost, but the emotional and financial agony brought on by the Aldercrest slide has been tremendous. Landslides aren't generally covered by standard homeowner's insurance.

"We had everything - flood, fire, earthquake insurance," says Mary Kinsheloe. When it became clear the ground was moving, she and her husband, Frank, tried to find landslide coverage but couldn't.

"A lifetime's work down a hill."

Other residents hold on to homes in good shape, betting - praying - their property won't join the others at the bottom of the hill. Some people have moved into new homes and, like the rest of the Aldercrest community, eagerly await word on possible compensation, either federal funds funneled through the city, or through claims and a class-action lawsuit filed against the city, which residents say should have foreseen the danger.

Disasters, such as nearby Mount St. Helens or a tornado or even an earthquake, are supposed to hit and then be done, residents point out.

That's not what happens when the devastation descends at glacial slowness. How, they ask, do you get past a disaster that lives on?

EARTH MOVED UP TO A FOOT A DAY

Even those who study natural disasters were shocked by the magnitude of the Aldercrest slide.

Landslides aren't unusual in the region, and the havoc they can wreak is well-documented. But no one around here has ever seen such widespread damage caused by a landslide, especially one affecting an entire subdivision.

At the most intense moments, the ground in Aldercrest moved from six inches to one foot a day during a two-month period. A hillside fissure that early on measured less than a foot high is now a cliff estimated to be 120 feet high.

Why the slide occurred at this precise location at this precise time remains unknown. But geologists have confirmed that it is the reactivation of a landslide that occurred here tens of thousands of years ago.

Deep below the Aldercrest subdivision are two enormous land formations, layered one atop the other. During the past several years, excessive rainfall saturated the earth and created two problems: The water loosened layers of clay but did not percolate through, and the load on the earth was increased. The two formations began to slip.

"There was just one drop of rain that was too much," says Ken Buss, a geotechnical engineer hired by the city of Kelso.

Unlike shallow landslides - extremely dangerous soupy messes that slam down all at once - this landslide was relatively slow moving because deep portions of the earth are shifting.

Chunks of earth, some as thick as 40 feet, rotated, transporting the houses, decks and driveways that lay on top. Sometimes the land just slid, crushing whatever was in its path.

A DESIRABLE NEIGHBORHOOD

A forested hamlet with numerous trees, meadows and, according to one neighborhood kid, the best frog pond in town, Aldercrest is close to downtown but still far enough away for a measure of peace.

The subdivision was developed in three phases, the first in 1973. More affluent neighborhoods could be found, but Aldercrest was a desirable place with homes valued between $100,000 and $450,000 when the disaster struck.

Many public officials lived here: City Council members, the county prosecuting attorney, the superintendent of schools. And then there were the regular folks, such as the Kinsheloes, both 72.

They moved from Toledo, Lewis County, to Kelso in 1995, in part, to be near a hospital. Frank Kinsheloe has a heart condition, and every so often his wife needs to rush him in. In Toledo, Mary Kinsheloe says, the nearest hospital was 25 miles away.

They chose a three-bedroom, blue-gray house that Mary liked right away because of the big kitchen with lots of cabinets and the spacious living room. There was plenty of room for her big collection of books and for Frank's memorabilia from years as a horse trainer.

"It was just a nice place," she says. They paid in full - $129,000 - and moved into the just-built house the day before Thanksgiving 1995.

They first noticed slight changes in their house in March 1998. Little mundane things: a bathroom door wouldn't shut properly, there were a few cracks in the walls. They figured their new house was settling.

Within a month they had to desert their home.

For a very short while, the Kinsheloes held onto the hope they could move their house. In fact, it was jacked up 3 feet off the foundation when the rains arrived. A dicey situation was transformed into a treacherous one. It was too dangerous for a crew to slip underneath the house to move it.

Fearing their house would slip onto a neighbor's that everyone agreed was otherwise safe, the Kinsheloes paid to have their own house demolished.

"All our life's work gone," Mary Kinsheloe says. "All we own outright now is our car."

They moved into a camper, then to an RV park. Eventually, they secured a 3 1/2 percent-interest loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA), which has approved 130 such loans for a total of $24 million for Aldercrest residents.

The Kinsheloes have since purchased a new home in nearby Lexington, one that is different from the Aldercrest house for two reasons. It is smaller and it is not paid off, says Mary Kinsheloe.

And the neighbor's house for which they sacrificed their own: The landslide destroyed it, too.

DAMAGE CAN'T BE TALLIED YET

Once Aldercrest was declared a federal disaster area in October, a request that was initially denied, the city began the process of securing relief funds from the federal government.

Local authorities had some experience working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because of Mount St. Helens and winter flooding in 1996 and 1997.

But Aldercrest was different.

Geologically speaking, the disaster isn't over because the earth is still moving. The actual cost of the damage can't be assessed yet.

At the moment, losses are estimated at more than $15 million, which includes the value of destroyed homes and public infrastructure. Officials estimate the total will be closer to $30 million.

In addition to the SBA loans, residents have received more than $500,000 in disaster housing assistance. But FEMA does not compensate a homeowner for the value of lost property.

Instead, FEMA helps cities recover lost public infrastructures. Because Aldercrest must never be rebuilt, the city will use FEMA funds to purchase Aldercrest homes, both destroyed and standing, at as little as 10 cents on the dollar. That means, however, some homeowners would have to sell and abandon their homes before any extensive damage has occurred.

Residents have until September to decide whether to stay and forfeit the assistance or to take what the city offers for their houses.

For the time being, Susan and James Baker, who run a lumber company in town, still live in Aldercrest, in the dream home they designed and had built in 1984.

"We don't feel a real danger," she says. "I don't know why that is, but we don't. At least not now."

For six months, the couple believed their house would survive the slide. Then they found some minor cracks in the basement and in the walls. Hairline cracks, really, that might have gone unnoticed before they were "super-aware of everything."

The Bakers secured a low-interest loan and bought a condo nearby, fearing the worst. But for now, the house stands strong and they aren't sure what to do: pay two mortgages; give up the house in which they expected to retire; or stay put, give up the condo and hope it has a good resale value.

"When you get used to a place it's hard to give up," she says.

So they wait.

FAMILIES FILE SUIT

In July, four families filed a lawsuit alleging the city of Kelso was negligent in allowing Aldercrest to be built.

Attorneys have asked that the lawsuit be certified a class action. Seventy five other Aldercrest households, including the Kinsheloes, have also filed claims seeking compensation.

Keith Lawrence, the mayor of Kelso, and his wife, Karen, lived in Aldercrest for only three months before they had to evacuate.

"Within about the first week, I was driving home one day and I saw some of our city crew looking at the road about a hundred yards from my home," Lawrence says.

"They said they thought the road was pinched on both sides of the street. As if there were mole burrows. And they didn't know why."

Inside the new house, only months old, closet doors wouldn't close and the chandelier was hanging at a 15-degree angle. But it was the house, not the chandelier, that was tilting. The house didn't appear to have moved because the driveway and the neighbor's house had moved as well.

"You looked out your window and everything seems to be OK because the world looks OK," Lawrence says.

He empathizes with his former neighbors even if he doesn't agree with the claims and the lawsuit that have been filed.

"You wonder, `Why me?' You fall into a complacency. You think everything's safe, everything's stable. There's no way you can predict what will happen.

"If I lived in the neighborhood for a number of years, and had huge equity in my home and all they're talking about is 10, 15 cents on the dollar, I can understand why someone would file suit," the mayor says.

"But I don't think we can be responsible for nature. We're just getting started with this thing. It could go on five years or better."

Florangela Davila's phone-message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is fdavila@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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