SEATTLE – People living in the path of a deadly Washington state landslide had virtually no warning before a wall of mud, trees and other debris thundered down the mountain. Some of the homeowners didn’t even know the hillside could give way at any time.
Unlike the warning systems and elaborate maps that help residents and officials prepare for natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, there’s no national system to monitor slide activity and no effort underway to produce detailed nationwide landslide hazard maps.
The U.S. Geological Survey doesn’t track or inventory slide areas on a national scale, despite an ambitious plan to do so more than a decade ago when Congress directed it to come up with a national strategy to reduce landslide losses.
That’s left states and communities to put together a patchwork of maps showing landslide hazards. In some cases, they are discovering that more buildings than previously thought are sitting on unstable ground. Even then, that information may not make its way to property owners.
Building a nationwide system is now possible with new technology, experts say, but would require spending tens of millions of dollars annually and could take more than a decade to complete with the help of states and cities.
So far, however, there has been little public outcry for faster, concerted action.
No one has pushed it, and it hasn’t been a priority, said Scott Burns, a geology professor at Portland State University. It’s costly to monitor it, and we don’t want to pay for it.
He added, Now they’re seeing these large disasters and saying this is important.
Not enough scrutiny
The challenge, experts say, is that many landslides are inactive or cause consistent low-level damage, while big, destructive landslides happen only sporadically and don’t cause the type of spectacular devastation hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes do – so they often don’t get the same attention or resources.
Despite this, landslides have exacted a toll in all 50 states, causing 25 to 50 deaths a year and up to $2 billion in losses annually. The last national map was published in 1982, but it is outdated and lacks detail.
The lack of attention on landslides comes as experts say increasing numbers of people are moving farther out from cities and suburbs and are more likely to come face to face not just with the views they sought but also with nature’s destructive forces.
Development on vulnerable land can disturb soil, put too much weight on slopes, or increase soil moisture, whether it is from runoff or a prolific sprinkler system.
Lynn Highland, a geographer with the USGS’s National Landslide Information Center, said she and others have advocated for a national landslide inventory, but the agency’s Landslide Hazards Program only has an annual budget of $3.5 million and a staff of about 20.
Weary of landslides constantly threatening homes, power lines and underground pipes, some states aren’t waiting for disasters to hit.
Oregon, North Carolina, Kentucky and others have used high-tech lasers mounted on aircraft to begin to assess landslide risk and build maps that could be used by planners and homeowners.
The airborne laser, known as LIDAR, fires rapid laser pulses at a surface and a sensor on the instrument measures the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back – building a detailed elevation map, point by point.
While a national LIDAR mapping effort is planned to start in 2015, USGS scientists have worked in regions such as Washington’s Puget Sound to pinpoint landslide hazards.
Jim Lee, a senior engineer with Seattle Public Utilities, said when that rain threshold is reached, landslide response crews are put on standby so they are ready to clear downed power lines, mud-covered streets or check on water lines. The National Weather Service in Seattle also will issue statements about potential landslides once the threshold is reached.