‘Emergency’ ended in Central Whidbey landslide area

More than two months after the Ledgewood and Bon Air communities on Central Whidbey were rocked by a natural disaster that made headlines across the country, the dust is finally starting to settle.

The Island County commissioners voted unanimously to dissolve a declaration of emergency enacted just after the massive landslide occurred on March 27.

On the surface, the action would seem to be good news and signify a return to normalcy, but that is not the case, according to Bill Oakes, director of Island County Public Works.

What it does signify is the end of the county’s initial steps to ensure the safety of residents — the road to recovery is just beginning, he said.

“Recovery can take a long time,” Oakes said. “New Orleans has never recovered.”

Ending the declaration will have other ramifications as well and while residents from both communities are grateful for the county’s help so far, several attended the meeting to object.

They said they are concerned the commissioners’ action is premature.

The geotechnical firm hired to determine the cause of the disaster has not released its findings, but Oakes confirmed no “smoking gun” was found.

With no clear answers, many believe it’s too soon to proclaim an end to the emergency.

“We know it’s going to happen again,” said Paul Morris, a Ledgewood resident. “It’s happened two times in the last 20 years.”

In 1991, a smaller landslide occurred nearby that destroyed at least one home. State experts also believe that these are the most recent incidents of events ongoing for as long as 11,000 years.

Ending the state of emergency may have other consequences as well, some of which may be more immediate, said Oakes. He told the commissioners that the emergency dirt road built to access Driftwood Way is now the sole responsibility of the Ledgewood and Bon Air communities. That includes the road’s maintenance.

Declarations empower municipalities to take immediate steps to preserve life and property. That includes entering or even seizing public property, Oakes said.

Now that the initial emergency is officially over, Oakes said the county is under “scrutiny” from state regulators to set aside those emergency powers.

As a result, the road can no longer be maintained by the county as doing so would be an unlawful gift of public funds, according to Oakes.

Residents aren’t so sure.

“We disagree with that interpretation of the law,” said Ralph Young, a water commissioner for Ledgewood.

Aside from being on the hook for maintenance, the community inherited the legal liability of any accidents that may occur on the dangerous road.

It’s a real concern for residents, he said.

Oakes confirmed the county has no intention of taking stewardship of the road even if the two communities hand over ownership of the property.

The area is unpredictable for a variety of reasons, including unstable geology, groundwater out of the bluff and toe erosion due to weather and tidal exposure, he said.

“The whole area is unstable and it will fail at some point,” Oakes said. “That doesn’t make people feel safe.”

He promises the county “is not abandoning” the community, however, and will continue to work with residents to find solutions. A feasibility study will be conducted in the future to rebuild Driftwood Way, though Oakes said it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that repairs will be too expensive to be realistic.

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