The signs, at first, are subtle. Cracks in driveways, garage doors that stop a foot short of their floors, trees and mailboxes at odd angles.
But then a tour of steep, curvy streets with names like Cedar Glen Court and Sitka Place reveals a basketball hoop bent low enough for a 5-year-old's slam-dunk, a few homes shifted off foundations and, finally, in one leafy cul-de-sac, a house all but swallowed up by the earth.Tacked on the edge of the roof, now at eye level, is a sign: "Sorry, we're closed."
Humor is scarce these days in the Aldercrest Hills neighborhood above this timber town in southwestern Washington, where residents are being tortured by a slow-moving natural disaster no one could have foreseen.
In February, the hill beneath the homes started moving, in some places by fractions of inches and in others by a foot a day.
Geologists hired by the city delivered their verdict last month. Much of the neighborhood sits on an "ancient landslide" that has been reactivated by unusually heavy rains over three or four years- as much as 75 percent heavier than the average rainfall of the last six decades.
At least seven homes have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair because of the slide. The city has warned 21 families their homes are at "severe risk" either because they are sliding or are endangered by other sliding houses, earth and trees above them. Almost all of them have vacated, including Kelso Mayor Keith Law-rence.
Eleven days ago, the geologists told residents that all told, 57 homes are at risk of being severely damaged or destroyed in place as the slide moves toward a creek at the bottom of a gradual slope.
"You're helpless. You're absolutely helpless," said Diane Buckner, standing in her driveway in pink slippers on a chilly June morning to point out a growing crack in a retaining wall on her property, the only sign - so far - her house may be in the slide area.
Since May 5, the land has shifted more than 11 feet in some sections. One home on Cedar Glen Court drops almost a foot a day, city engineer Kay Adams says.
The slide has ruptured underground connections for power, telephone, cable, water and sewer so frequently that the city and utility companies have run temporary lines above ground.
The slide could be millions of years old, says City Manager Doug Robinson. Certainly, he said, the city had no way to know it was there before houses were built there, starting in the early 1970s.