Landslides are a fact of life on Whidbey Island, especially during the rainy season.
Most go by unnoticed along miles of undeveloped shoreline, or are nothing more than a nuisance, blocking roads, delaying traffic and causing other generally minor headaches, such as those on South Whidbey this month. But they are occasionally much more destructive. And as the massive 2014 landslide in Oso made clear — 43 people died — they’re certainly capable of claiming lives.
So far we’ve been lucky.
In the past five years alone, landslides have claimed more than half a dozen homes and beach cabins. The 2013 Ledgewood event, a deep-seated slide that resulted in more than 1,100 feet of bluff sloughing away just north of Greenbank, destroyed and made unlivable several homes. It also obliterated a section of road. The 2014/2015 slides in Brighton Beach, or Old Clinton, also destroyed and damaged cabins and other structures.
That no one was killed in these events is something of a small miracle, and likely due to the fact that residents or owners weren’t home at the time.
But while landslides can strike without mercy, they don’t always hit without warning. People who live in slide-prone areas and those who haven’t already educated themselves about the dangers, triggers and possible fixes of unstable bluffs should do so.
According to the Island County Department of Emergency Management’s website, there are a few “tells” that could indicate a potential landslide. For shallow and generally fast moving slides, experts suggest looking for things like sudden changes in creek water levels, hillsides with increasing springs, seeps and saturated ground, and visible cracks. Unusual sounds, such as cracking wood, knocking boulders or “groaning of the surrounding ground” can be cues as well.
For much rarer deep-seated slides, big events like Ledgewood, sagging or taut utility lines, leaning poles, fences or trees, and cracks, mounds or bulges on streets may indicate a problem. Broken or leaking underground utilities, well problems and soggy ground may also be warnings.
Deep-seated slides on the Ledgewood scale are obviously exceedingly uncommon, and any observable signs shouldn’t be cause for panic. But it pays to pay attention and ask questions.
If you’re worried about a landslide, and observe some of the red flags above, check with county or private experts. It won’t hurt, and might just save your life.
Visit www.islandcountywa.gov/DEM/Pages/Home.aspx for more information about landslides on Whidbey.