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Originally published March 27, 2013 at 9:32 PM | Page modified March 28, 2013 at 9:22 AM

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Whidbey landslide: 'Where I had been standing was no longer there'

A landslide early Wednesday morning took out a 1,000-foot stretch of hillside on the west side of Whidbey Island. There were no injuries, but several people were displaced.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Before and after

before
after
STATE DEPT. OF ECOLOGY
TED S. WARREN / AP

Slide the line in the middle from left to right to compare the before and after photos. Left: Photo of Whidbey Island in 2006, before the landslide that brought down much of this hillside. Right: An aerial photo shows Wednesday's damage.

See full-sized before and after →

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No insurance coverage, that's a heavy blow. I'll bet very few of these people have... MORE
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WHIDBEY ISLAND — It is a part of the Puget Sound geology, a legacy of the glacier that formed this area: Massive chunks of shoreline hillsides just slide off.

Early Wednesday morning, just such a 1000-foot-wide swath fell off in the Ledgewood Beach development on the west side of this island.

The slide was so powerful, it pushed one home at the bottom of the cliff some 200 feet out into the water, said Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue Chief Ed Hartin, and it took out 300 to 400 feet of Driftwood Way, the road that led to the shoreline.

The elderly man inside the home that was shoved into the drink managed to run out at 4:15 a.m. and get in his truck. When he found the road gone, he called for help on his cellphone.

There were no injuries. But the slide did mean the evacuation of 12 people occupying five of the 17 homes below the road. Many of the empty Island County residences were for vacation or weekend use.

Two of those homes have been deemed “at significant risk,” said Hartin, but he said the county is urging all residents to stay away because there is no electricity, and the road is impassable.

From the homes on top of the cliff, another 17 were evacuated, he said. Two of those have been deemed “at significant risk.” Hartin said many of the other residents could begin returning Wednesday night.

“Like an earthquake”

Bret Holmes was one of those with vivid memories of the slide.

He has been staying at an elegant, country home with a well-tended garden, which had been the pride of his father, retired airline pilot Stephen Earl Holmes, and his stepmother, Jan Holmes. Both passed away recently, and Holmes was getting the home ready for sale.

At around 4 in the morning, said Holmes, he heard a noise “like an earthquake, it rattled the whole house.”

He took a flashlight to the backyard facing the water. Gone, he said, were the 20 or so trees, some 200 feet tall, that had been on the sloping hillside.

The flashlight battery died, and Holmes went to get a new flashlight.

When he returned, he said, “where I had been standing was no longer there.”

By afternoon, Holmes estimated, 75 feet of the backyard was gone, the turf simply ending with a sheer drop-off.

Holmes began to move mementos — paintings done by both parents, antiques, even several gallons of wine made by his dad, to the garage, which was farther from the ever-nearing cliff.

Now Holmes is staying with his dog at a nearby home offered to him by someone who isn’t using it.

He said his brother called Allstate Insurance and was told the property wasn’t covered for such damage.

On Wednesday, the Northwest Insurance Council sent out a “strong reminder” that standard homeowners’ or business insurance policies specifically exclude damage caused by earth movement such as a landslide. It said landslide coverage is available at an extra cost.

Accumulation of water

Among those visiting the slide Wednesday was Terry Swanson, a principal lecturer at the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and an island resident.

He was there to take samples and was excited at having found a fossilized piece of wood uncovered by the slide.

Swanson explained how when the Vashon glacier began to advance and retreat some 15,000 to 18,000 years ago, it left a sometimes-unstable geology on places such as Whidbey Island.

It left a top layer of glacial till — “the stuff that looks like ground-up concrete” — and below that a big layer of sand, and below that, clay.

The kind of slide that occurred Wednesday isn’t caused by some big winter storms, but by an accumulation of water over the years, he said.

The water keeps infiltrating the sand and hits the impenetrable clay. The water has to go somewhere, and a slide is created.

This slide is likely to keep moving for several weeks or more, said the state Department of Natural Resources.

Swanson was asked if he’d buy property along shorelines such as this one.

“No,” he replied. “I don’t want people on Whidbey Island to be scared, but the evidence indicates that in this particular area, it’s susceptible to major, deep-seated rotational landslides (rotational meaning the slide literally rotates, instead of moving straight down).

Ed Hartin said the county is still assessing what to do about the caved-in road to the shoreline.

That left someone like Morgan Bell in a philosophical mood. She and her 80-year-old mother, Jena Burwell, had been renting a home along the shoreline.

Bell and their two dogs walked out of the slide area after rescue crews came calling in the morning, urging evacuation. Her mom was taken away by boat.

Their 2004 Nissan has been left below, as has a kiln and other glassmaking supplies that Bell uses in making artwork.

They’re staying with Bell’s sister in nearby Coupeville.

“It’s like a forced vacation. They told us it’d be like this for a month or two,” she said. “We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m not going to get upset. It just drains my energy.”

Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton and news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@comcast.net

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