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North Salt Lake residents 'coping' with loss and fear after landslide

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 8:10 a.m. MDT

People stand near the top of a landslide that destroyed a home near 739 Parkway Drive in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) People stand near the top of a landslide that destroyed a home near 739 Parkway Drive in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

NORTH SALT LAKE — Early Tuesday morning, David Utrilla's father woke up to a sound that confirmed the fears of the family and the community.

When he looked out a back window, he saw the hill behind his North Salt Lake home moving toward them. He woke the rest of his family, and they all moved out into the street in their pajamas.

Utrilla, who lives in another community, recounted Wednesday what his parents and siblings witnessed:

"Literally, when they ran out of the house, a couple of (my) brothers were moving the cars out of the garage, the whole house basically collapsed behind them," Utrilla said. "It was just a miracle, really, that they came out alive. Because if my father (hadn't woken) up, we'd be having a different type of catastrophe where lives were compromised. So in a way, we feel blessed that their lives were safe."

Ismael Utrilla, right, talks to neighbor Steve Peterson after a landslide destroyed Ismael Utrilla's home near 739 Parkway Drive in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) Ismael Utrilla, right, talks to neighbor Steve Peterson after a landslide destroyed Ismael Utrilla's home near 739 Parkway Drive in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

Utrilla's account was one of the first public responses from the family whose home was destroyed in the landslide. One day after the incident, city officials and community members gathered Wednesday afternoon to discuss the city's tentative plan in moving forward.

Geotechnical engineers with Sky Properties, the site's developer, are waiting for the area to remain dry for 48 hours before beginning studies to model the soil's stability and water content. Once studies are complete, construction plans will be made to excavate the area and lessen the slope of the hill, according to city manager Barry Edwards.

"We're hopeful that within three weeks, we should have construction equipment out there starting to do the remediation," Edwards said. "It's going to take some time once the construction begins. I think we're all aware that the construction season is far spent, and we don't have a lot of time left. So if they don't jump in and get it done, the city will step in and get it done."

Ismael Utrilla, top right, places his hand on Henry Utrilla, bottom left, along with neighbor Steve Peterson, top left, as he cries after a landslide destroyed the Utrilla home near 739 Parkway Drive in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) Ismael Utrilla, top right, places his hand on Henry Utrilla, bottom left, along with neighbor Steve Peterson, top left, as he cries after a landslide destroyed the Utrilla home near 739 Parkway Drive in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

Until the ground dries out and stabilizes, officials will refrain from altering the demolished home. When it is deemed safe to do so, the home will be removed in such a way that the some of the Utrilla family's possessions still inside can be collected, according to North Salt Lake Police Chief Craig Black.

Tuesday, the city issued a mitigation plan for the area affected by the slide. The plan states the city will wait for "no movement for several days, no rain for several days" before action on the slide is considered. Material at the bottom of the slope will not be removed, and no heavy equipment is being allowed on the top of the hill.

Although no movement was detected at the site Tuesday night or Wednesday, nearby residents remained skeptical of the neighborhood's safety.

A landslide damaged tennis courts near at Eagleridge Tennis and Swim Club in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) A landslide damaged tennis courts near at Eagleridge Tennis and Swim Club in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

Ty Weston hasn't been back in his home since he and his family left Tuesday morning, even though evacuations were lifted that evening. Weston said he was waiting to see what Wednesday's meeting would bring before considering whether to go back.

"Frankly, I wasn't very impressed," he said. "I felt that what we heard was the developer, who has at least partial responsibility, is the one's they're relying on to tell us what's going on. Not very confidence-inspiring."

Other residents shared Weston's concerns.

"It's completely unpredictable," said Steve Peterson, who lives across the street from the Utrilla's home. "We obviously feel a lot of discomfort. … There's no way we could feel comfortable, but we live here, and it's complicated to just get up and walk away."

Clothing can be seen in a home near 739 Parkway Drive after it was destroyed by a landslide in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) Clothing can be seen in a home near 739 Parkway Drive after it was destroyed by a landslide in North Salt Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

Some officials say it's not a matter of if the soil moves again, but when.

"Everything that we're being told is that it is a very high probability that this is going to continue to move," Black said. "But we are confident that as that starts to move, we can give people that are in their homes enough advance notice to be ready to go. As far as when that's going to happen, I don't think any of us have the answer."

Evacuations remained in effect Wednesday for four homes, one of which was never occupied. Residents of the other 24 houses who were allowed back in their homes about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday were told to be ready to evacuate again should the hillside show signs of movement, Black said.

Instability in the hillside was apparent to some residents months before the slide occurred. Geotechnical consultants with the city and Sky Properties attempted to flatten out the slope, but the cracks continued, according to city engineer Paul Ottoson. Officials were in the process of collecting data on the hill's movements when the slide occurred, he said.

A woman comforts Elena Utrilla during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after her home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) A woman comforts Elena Utrilla during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after her home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

Many community members, however, expressed concern that city officials and Sky Properties did not address the hill's instability with needed urgency in the days leading up to the slide.

"They kept assuring, 'No, nothing's going to happen,'" Utrilla said.

City officials maintain that proper procedures were followed in the process of approving the area for development. So far, neither the city nor Sky Properties has claimed liability for the slide.

"Clearly, in my view, they did not do everything that was possible, and that's obvious to anyone who watched the earth move on this mountain for weeks," Peterson said.

In terms of damage to private property, the city is not required to fund repairs, according to North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave.

Ismael Utrilla listens during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after his home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) Ismael Utrilla listens during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after his home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

"The city's not responsible," Arave said. "We have broad exclusions on what the residents are going to have to pay for. And really, this would be something that the residents are going to pay for."

Providing for public safety, however, is another matter.

"The City Council has a fiduciary responsibility to all the (residents) in the city," Edwards said. "I can safely say that if it is determined that we somehow participated in this willingly or unwillingly and are the cause of it and are cited with responsibility for it, we will meet that obligation."

Weston said responsibility for the slide shouldn't lie with any one stakeholder.

"I do believe that there's responsibility from a lot of different parties in this problem, including the homeowners," Weston said. "I think homeowners, when they decide where to live, they weigh the pros and cons. … But I think they do that also under the assumptions that when new development is put in, everything's done in a responsible way."

The Utrilla family listens during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after their home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) The Utrilla family listens during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after their home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

Although the city declared a state of emergency Tuesday evening, it was unlikely that it would meet the threshold of $1.52 million in damage to public infrastructure to be eligible for assistance from Davis County, according to Davis County Sheriff's deputy and emergency services coordinator Ellis Bruch. State help was even further away with a threshold of $3.8 million in damage to public infrastructure.

Sky Properties was providing housing for the 12 members of Utrilla's family who are now without a home. Utrilla said the family endured debilitating anxiety Tuesday, but for now, "they're just coping."

"The Red Cross has also been very gracious to provide for all the needs that they have. Also, the neighbors providing the clothing," he said. "Unfortunately to say, the city has in no way come up to us to see how we're doing. … I feel like even though they don't have a legal obligation to do that, I believe that they have a moral obligation."

David Utrilla talks to Elena Utrilla during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after her home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News) David Utrilla talks to Elena Utrilla during a meeting at North Salt Lake City Hall after her home was destroyed in a landslide, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

An account at America First Credit Union was opened under Utrilla Family Relief Fund for monetary donations.

email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen

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