Living in a slide zone
Landslides are a fact of life in the rainy Northwest, but homeowners are often in the dark when it comes to knowing if they're at risk.
Special to The Seattle Times
Heavy rain in the hilly Puget Sound region often means landslides.
Sometimes they are merely inconvenient, such as the April 12 slide that blocked Highway 4 near Longview or March slides that blocked the railroad tracks between Seattle and Everett. Sometimes they are a tragedy, such as the Perkins Lane slide in the Magnolia neighborhood about 14 years ago that sent several houses tumbling toward the beach.
This year, severe rains in January led to flooding, landslides and mudslides, prompting President Obama to sign federal disaster declarations for seven Washington counties, including King County. More than 70 landslides were reported in Seattle alone this past winter.
Mike Wayte is no stranger to landslides. He lives in the Alki neighborhood on a vertiginous hillside that's listed as one of the two most slide-prone areas in Seattle.
Yet when he bought his house in 1992, there was no recent history of slides in the area. And he'd lived in Seattle for 30 years.
But the winter of 1996-97 was incredibly wet, and slides were reported all over the region. The Perkins Lane houses had slid downhill that winter. One day in March 1997 Wayte was outside talking to his neighbor.
"All of a sudden we heard a noise like popcorn popping," he said.
He looked up the hill behind his house to see the blackberry bushes on the slope coming down.
The slide stopped before it reached Wayte's house, but his troubles were just beginning.
Wayte and his neighbors pooled their money to put up a retaining wall, although at one place on his property crossed by a sewer easement, he could put up only large concrete blocks instead of a solid wall.
A few months later, another slide came down. The blocks on the easement were pushed downhill, but otherwise the wall on Wayte's property held.
The slide, however, hit his next-door neighbor's house. It caused an electrical short and the house caught fire.
Another round of construction followed, this time higher up the hill because the cause of the slides turned out to be an uphill neighbor's downspouts, which dumped runoff right onto the hillside instead of into the city storm sewer system.
Wayte had to refinance to pay for his share — along with four other property owners — of the $400,000 retaining wall construction.
Knowledge is power
For Seattle residents living in a house in hilly terrain or thinking of buying one, the city maintains an online page of resources (see accompanying sidebar), as well as survey maps showing areas having a 40 percent or greater slope.
But it's up to the homeowner to research and, if needed, take preventive measures, including hiring a geotechnical engineer for a site survey.
"If there's evidence of some previous slide, it's to their advantage to hire an private professional to evaluate the slope," said Bryan Stevens, public-information officer for Seattle's Department of Planning and Development.
The city holds informational sessions on landslides every fall before heavy rains start, Stevens said.
He added that city codes have been revised to prohibit construction during the rainy season unless Seattle's own geotechnical engineers are involved.
Laurel Harrington, manager of drainage and dam safety for Seattle Public Utilities, said the law gives the city some leeway to take preventive measures on private property.
"If (homeowners) have water going down their slope in an unsafe manner and there's a potential for causing damage to someone else's property, at that point we can go in and require that the homeowner do something about the drainage," Harrington said.
"Generally we don't do that unless there's a complaint," she added.
Outside Seattle, resources are scarcer.
Tom McFarlane, clearing and grading supervisor in Bellevue's Development Services Department, said the city doesn't offer much additional guidance other that what is already in the code regarding construction.
"What we tell people, if they ask, is don't dump your stormwater on the slope, or especially at the top of the slope," McFarlane said.
"If they need specific geologic information, they'll need to hire their own professional for that," he added.
It's a similar situation in surrounding cities. Eric LaFrance, Sammamish's senior stormwater engineer, said that while the city has its own codes and standards, as well as maps showing slide areas, most questions are referred to "the great mothership, King County."
'Difference in conditions'
There's the additional complication of insurance. Landslides aren't covered under standard homeowners insurance policies, a fact that all homeowners should know.
The only way to get coverage for landslides is through what's called a "difference in conditions," or DIC, policy, said Karl Newman, president of the Northwest Insurance Council.
These catchall policies cover things like landslides, mudslides (those that happen in stream beds), earthquakes and other earth-movement damage.
"We find that a majority of people are not aware of what is and what is not covered as part of their homeowners policy or standard business policy," Newman said.
DIC policies are sold through specialty brokers called surplus lines carriers, most of which are small shops serving this niche market. The largest underwriter of DIC policies in the state is Lloyd's of London.
Most homeowners can contact their regular insurance agent for a referral to a surplus lines carrier.
Costs of DIC policies can be all over the map. A minimum policy could range from $300-$500 per month, said Mike Calovich of Countrywide Brokerage Services, a surplus lines carrier in Edmonds.
But, Calovich added, by way of example, a $500,000 1930 brick-veneer frame house on Queen Anne Hill could cost up to $2,000 a month to insure against slides, once you factor in loss of use and the contents.
"People will often be surprised that they will pay as much for this specialty coverage as they will for their homeowners (policy)," Calovich said.
"But depending on where they live, it's sleep insurance."
Still, uptake of DIC policies is low. Calovich said that "one out of five would be high," and blames a general lack of awareness among homeowners.
Larry Palmer, a surplus lines carrier with The Insurance Store in Woodinville, said there's another reason: "The 'Yeah, but it won't happen to me' effect."
Palmer saw the same mentality at work when he was revising policies for homes near the Howard Hansen Dam.
"As soon as they saw it was going to cost them more than $50, they weren't going to buy it," Palmer said.
Every rainy season, many people make inquiries about slide policies, Palmer said. "But they wouldn't lay the money out. They roll the dice."
Ounce of prevention
Yet another factor is that some people don't see the need for a specific slide policy.
"Slide insurance I usually tell people is worthless," said Bernie Hedeen, of Seattle-based General & Marine Construction. That's because usually just the house is insured, and not the property. And most slides stop when they get to the house.
"You spend all this money on insurance for the house, and the hill is the problem," said Hedeen, who was Wayte's contractor.
Hedeen's services are not cheap. Repairing slides — and Hedeen estimates he's worked on close to 300 since he started slide work in 1982 — can run $50,000 to $200,000, typically, but one Medina slide a few years ago, in which a section of hillside 300 feet long by 200 feet wide and 20 feet deep failed, amounted to a $1.2 million cleanup job. No homes were affected by that slide, he said.
Prevention by means of retaining walls is still regarded as a better route to go.
"As we say in my business, we don't want any repeat customers," Hedeen said.
A report the city commissioned from the engineering firm Shannon & Wilson and released in 2000 emphasized the need for prevention.
The report said 84 percent of documented slides showed some human influence, such as improperly routing a downspout down a hill.
If his neighbor had not done so, Mike Wayte could have been spared a world of grief.
Just south of Wayte's house on Beach Drive Southwest is another slide, where a hillside came down in 2007. Jersey barriers keep a tangled mess of soil, rock and uprooted trees and bushes from covering the road.
Wayte and his wife, Jacqueline Baker are two of 47 property owners listed as plaintiffs in a suit filed May 19 against the city of Seattle and the owner of a house on Atlas Place Southwest above Beach Drive that they blame for causing the 2007 slide.
Wayte said the city tends to make rosy projections when it comes to developments like those on Beach and Atlas Drive, and doesn't consider potential problems.
"They probably shouldn't have built any of those lots," Wayte said. "Now everyone is on the hook to pay for it."
But Wayte said he doesn't worry anymore, not after all the money and work he's invested in his retaining walls and regarding the hillside.
"Doesn't concern me, because I believe I have the safest house on the block," Wayte said.
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