When the Earth Moves…

Western North Carolina has seen a record amount of rain in the last two weeks. The most recent 15 day total that I saw for Buncombe County put us at over 21 inches of rain. McDowell County is over 24 inches and poor Polk County is at nearly that amount. With this huge deluge of rain comes flooding and many landslides and our area has seen its fair share. Cooincidently, Jennifer Bauer with Appalachian Landslide Consultants was scheduled to talk at my office this week on this very topic. I’m glad I was able to see her presentation.

According to the NC Environmental Quality website, the word Landslide appears to covers debris flows, earth slides, and rock slides. Debris flows are often referred to as mudslides. These will start uphill when water from a spring or heavy rains mix with soil (usually a sandy/silt mixture) and the ground starts to slide, carrying rocks, trees and anything else that gets in its way. Earth slides differ in that it doesn’t take saturated ground to cause the slide. Cracks could open up in the soil that causes the earth to break away. Rock slides often occur during freeze/thaw cycles, wet weather, or any event that causes the earth under large rock formations to become unstable. We most often see these along roadways where the mountain has been carved out to create the road. For better descriptions, visit the NC DEQ page on Recognising Landslides and Appalachian Landslide Consultants page titled “What are Landslides“.

Many of you may remember in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan blew through, causing even greater flooding and property damage then we are seeing today. There was a community in Macon County called Peeks Creek that was wiped out, causing around $1.3 million dollars in property damage. A debris flow started several miles up the mountain and traveled about 32 miles an hour down the mountain, wiping out everything in its path. The scar can still be seen today. Within this community was a family who lived in Florida and had evacuated to their vacation home in Peeks Creek, only to lose their lives to the debris flow. Last week in Polk County, two separate debris flows converged right at the location of a home, killing the woman who lived inside. Monetary damage is nothing compared to the lives that are lost.

When we are house hunting in the mountains, we need to be aware of the ground below us and around us. There are some telltale signs to look for that your property might be susceptible.

  • Cracks in the ground may be signs of unstable ground, especially along driveways and home foundations where the land slopes away
  • Structural damage to a home such as cracks in the foundation. Not all cracks are the same and not all cracks are a sign of a failing foundation, but movement in a foundation wall is a serious red flag
  • Look at the piers that a porch is sitting on. Foundations might be on solid ground but a porch might have been installed over fill dirt. Are the footers sliding out from under the piers?
  • Look at the surroundings. Does the land slope uphill from the house? Are there any visible springs or wet patches in the earth? This could cause ground saturation and then a debris flow
  • Look for curved or bending trees in the woods. Trees want to grow straight to capture the sun. If the ground starts to slide under the tree, it might change the angle that the tree is coming out of the earth, causing it to have to bend it’s way back straight to the sky.

This isn’t an all-inclusive list. If you are considering the purchase of a home on a mountain, or you plan to build, it might be worth the time and expense to hire a company like Appalachian Landslide Consultants to come out and do a site evaluation for you. Your due diligence period allows you the opportunity to do this research so take advantage of it! Just remember, homeowners insurance does not cover damage from landslides and there is no government landslide insurance similar to flood insurance. A sobering thought, isn’t it?

Please stay safe, dry and on high (stable) ground until this crazy weather pattern blows over!



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