Landslide threatens Clyde home

By DeeAnna Haney | May 15, 2013
Photo by: DeeAnna Haney Tracey and Shirley Coward stand at the base of a landslide that threatens to fall and damage their home.

Four days after last week’s heavy rainfall that led to widespread flooding and landslides it seemed the threat was over. But even after the rain stopped, land began sliding just inches from one Clyde couple’s home.

Tracey and Shirley Coward built their rustic mountain home on Evergreen Circle off Ratcliff Cove, mostly on their own 18 years ago, and they’ve continued to work on it over the years. The couple just recently installed hardwood floors.

They raised their children there and their grandchildren have played along the bank.

“The children have had vine swings up there,” Shirley Coward said. “It’s really been home to all of us.”

After nearly 20 years of children playing, Shirley gardening and Tracey managing the grass and trees on the bank, there’s never been any sign of erosion — until last week.

On May 9 when Tracey Coward was readying to leave for work around 6:30 a.m., he noticed their old tomcat, Leo, acting strangely outside the front door.

“I saw the cat jump and duck,” he said. “I thought he was after something.”

But when he opened the door he saw the embankment next to their driveway was slowly falling, threatening to cover the three vehicles parked there.

The mud and dirt was powerful enough to move his truck over and Coward decided to move the cars further down the driveway. A small river of rainwater was seeping from the embankment and flowing through their driveway.

When their daughter, Cindy Fugate, saw the damage, she called county erosion control immediately.

Marc Pruett, director of erosion control for the county, was the first to arrive and survey the area, and he was astounded by what he saw.

“The whole thing was pretty spectacular the way it was presenting itself,” Pruett said.

Just above the slide was a visible 300-foot long escarpment line, which is the section where land falls away creating a crack, and usually referred to as a “scarp.”

The scarp curved across the top of the embankment above the Coward’s home.

Geological engineers also came to take a look at the landslide and advised that Shirley Coward evacuate the house.

In an email to Pruett and other state geological engineers, Rick Wooten, senior geologist for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, described what he told the family.

“We explained that in our experience these types of slides generally move on the order of feet per day with the rate of movement decreasing as the slope dries out, however, there is uncertainty in how the slide will behave, therefore it’s best to be cautious,” Wooten said in the email.

Shirley Coward didn’t evacuate until Tracey came home around 2 p.m. Thursday. Then the Red Cross paid for a hotel room for them to stay. But they came back the next day to view any changes.

The couple and their daughter sat in rocking chairs at the edge of their front porch Friday afternoon watching the embankment about five feet away.

It was easy to see the defined scarp line where the mountainside slipped away and slid down toward their home. They could hear roots cracking occasionally and water trickling out of the embankment, puddling up in their yard and driveway.

Every couple of minutes, a clump of earth would break off and plop onto the driveway.

“Every time it pops something slides and I get ready to run,” Shirley Coward said. “It’s like a shotgun ready to go off.”

The mud collapsed the small rock wall her husband built several years ago that lined the bank. Shirley Coward had spent hundreds of hours planting flowers and her prized herb garden at its based.

Pruett said there’s no way of knowing if the mountain will come down all at once or a little at a time.

And because it’s an act of nature, any damage to their home caused by the landslide will not be covered under their home insurance.

Without knowing what will happen, the Cowards are left to wait and see. Shirley Coward said she only planned to stay in the hotel for a few days, but if the slide still hasn’t affected the house, she plans to go back home.

Pruett said there is a chance that if the land continues to fall it will damage the house.

"I think that it could, but it's only conjecture. There is just no way to know," he said.

And the problem is not likely to go away.

“Water weighs 63 pounds per cubic foot,” Pruett said. “There’s a huge land mass above that slope that’s feeding water down into it and until the water is dealt with they will always have a problem with heavy soil.”

He said at this point, the Cowards will need to be in contact with state geologists for advice and perhaps find a way to mitigate the problem.

But, "That kind of fix would be extensive," Pruett said.

Shirley Coward said after this experience, she would encourage others to be aware of their property and know that this could happen to anyone living near a slope.

But her husband said he’s not sure that even with prior knowledge anything could have been done to prevent the slide.

"I just pray to God it doesn't take my home," Shirley Coward said.

The Cowards were unable to be reached for further comment as of Tuesday afternoon about the status of the landslide.