For preparation, the best thing you can do is plan for yourself, no matter where you live. —Dwayne Baird
NORTH SALT LAKE — North Salt Lake city officials Tuesday night declared a state of emergency in search of state relief money to help residents and secure the moving hillside that demolished a home and put others at risk.
But it did not answer the key questions area residents were asking as they watched the destruction from their porches and driveways Tuesday: Why wasn't more done to secure the area when problems surfaced last year? Why is development occurring on the hillside? And most importantly: Are we safe?
"This was not an act of God. This was an act of man. And this was an act that was caused by wanting to build in an area that people already knew was at risk," said Steve Peterson, who lives on Parkway Drive.
Peterson said he awoke after hearing a noise Tuesday morning. He looked outside and saw movement on the hillside across from his home. His neighbors, a family of 10, ran across the street to his house. He sat on the porch with his neighbors as they watched the home they had just paid for crumble.
"Ten people could easily have been killed," Peterson said.
Scott Kjar of Sky Properties, the company that developed Eaglepointe Estates, said his company has been developing homes in the area since 1991 and has not had problems. Kjar defended the work that went into the development:
"The city did their duty. We did our duty," he said. "We get our soils engineers; they get their soils engineers. They both meet and talk and then they say, 'Yeah, this is OK.'"
Kjar said the work is extensive and was done "in full light of the city."
"It's a fluke. It really is. I can't fault the city for what happened. We can't fault our guys. We're just saying, 'Stuff happened,'" he said in an interview with KSL-TV.
Before a development is approved, city engineers are required to OK the concept, preliminary plans and final plans, North Salt Lake city officials said Tuesday. Plans include blueprints, reports and a geotechnical report, according to North Salt Lake City engineer Paul Ottoson. Geotechnical reports offer recommendations ranging from pavement design to home footings.
"Obviously of the things they would look for in an area like this would be slope stability," he said.
To have a development approved, hillsides need to have 2 horizontal feet for every vertical foot, Ottoson said. Eaglepoint Estates is at the required limit.
A geotechnical firm, officials from the Utah Department of Natural Resources and a team from BYU were on site Tuesday to try to determine what happened. As of Tuesday afternoon, "we don't know. I can't say at this point," Ottoson said. "Obviously the rain was a big factor."
Development officials say the landslide is a rarity in their experience.
"We've been doing this since 1991 on this mountain and this is the first failure like this that we've seen," Kjar said.
An emotional Peterson took his complaints before the North Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday, saying the blame lies with both the city and the developers, and demanding his neighbors be made whole.
North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave responded, saying that while no one was ready to accept liability Tuesday, the city and the development company have agreed to work together for residents.
"They have equipment and crews that are ready to go right now and start moving dirt to fix the problem, if we only knew how to fix it," said Arave, who fears premature action could make the grave problem even worse.
"Because we didn't start soon enough, this tragedy occurred," Arave acknowledged.
The city first became aware of cracking in the fall of 2013 but did not take immediate action or contact the geological survey because the affected area seemed to be small and not a threat, according to North Salt Lake city manager Barry Edwards. More cracking was spotted in the early summer, and a few weeks ago "we got very concerned about it," Ottoson said.
Sloughing and a landslide occurred Tuesday morning, despite developers' work at removing soil from the top of the hill last week to reduce pressure and lessen the slope.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said that those who performed the geological studies should bear some responsibility for the slide.
"Obviously, for these homes to be built, there had to be engineering reports and geological studies, and obviously those were wrong," Weiler said. "I think with the technology we have today, I think these were avoidable errors."
Investigators were on scene Tuesday to assess the risk for future landslides and to determine what caused the slide that destroyed one home and caused at least 27 families to evacuate their homes.
"It's not always something you can prevent," said Kimm Harty, deputy director for Utah Geological Survey.
Harty's office advises cities and monitors landslide conditions upon request. She said city officials did the right thing by recognizing they had a problem and hiring consultants. Had they contacted the geological survey, experts would have assessed the situation and likely recommended they hire an agency to monitor the landslide.
"None of us really know that it's going to unleash tomorrow," she said. "Clearly they didn't have a sign that led them to believe there was imminent danger."
Others argue there were signs of potential problems.
In 1997, land beneath the Springhill subdivision, about 1 mile from the Eaglepointe subdivision, began to shift. In a slow-moving landslide, one home was condemned and three others damaged.
With the exception of three dry years between 2005 and 2012, additional precipitation caused a landslide that was 720 feet long and 290 feet wide.
In June 2012, North Salt Lake received almost $2 million in a matching federal grant to buy and destroy 11 homes in the path of an additional slide and turn it into a park, according to the Utah Geological Survey.
On Tuesday, North Salt Lake officials said the Springhill and Eaglepointe landslides are not related and it's difficult to draw comparisons.
Each city is responsible for monitoring and creating its own zoning and development in Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert expressed sympathy for those affected and said he will continue to monitor the landslide, as well as the flooding in Carbon and Emery counties.
Herbert said local governments have the capacity to come up with solutions that best fit their communities.
"The cities and towns face different and distinct issues depending on where they're located within the state, what their topographical elements are — if some are up on the side of a mountain, some are out in the valley, some are in more metropolitan areas and some are our more rural," according to Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Herbert.
"His feeling is that it's best addressed locally rather than having a one-size-fits-all set of regulations," Carpenter said.
Assessing risks has been on the agenda of the governor's office through different administrations.
In 2007, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. established a geologic hazards working group that made recommendations on how to reduce losses from geologic hazards. A year later, recommendations were issued and that mapping and assessment work is underway.
Tammy Kikuchi, public information officer for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the Utah Geological Survey has published two Wasatch Front studies in Magna and Copperton since 2008, and four additional studies are in progress. Flood hazard mapping in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also in progress and will be a resource for local agencies.
Mapping for North Salt Lake, however, has not been completed.
"We're following behind our geologic mappers. They map the geology first and then we use that to help us determine what geologic hazards there are," Jessica Castleton, a geologic hazards geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, said in explaining the mapping process.
The North Salt Lake area has been mapped on a wide scale, but the smaller scale assessments remain years away.
Those looking to gauge their home's risk for landslides and other natural disasters can look at hazard maps created by the Division of Emergency Management and Pier Systems.
Another way to identify risks is to view maps generated for counties throughout the state by the Utah Geological Survey.
Qualifying areas as being high- or low-risk can present a liability, said Dwayne Baird, public information officer for the Department of Public Safety. Identifying an area as low risk could give a homeowner a false sense of security. He said Utahns need to take responsibility for themselves and their families by having at least a 72-hour kit of emergency supplies.
"For preparation, the best thing you can do is plan for yourself, no matter where you live," Baird said.
Contributing: McKenzie Romero
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