Oceanside homeowners struggle with hillslides

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer September 17, 2013 09:04 pm

Paul Carlin shook his head as he peered over the edge of what used to be his backyard on Buena Vista Loop.

Most of it — dead trees and shrubs — are sloughed off into a pile on the beach below. The dirt on the bluff is exposed, save for a wad of tattered plastic sheeting, set in place last fall to deflect raging water. Sandbags that held that tarp down now hang on bare dirt.

“I’ve been in a lot of bad situations,” Carlin said of the storm waters that flooded his and four other houses on the street. “I was in Loma Prieta; I’ve been in wildfires. I never felt like I felt that night. Helpless. Completely, utterly helpless.”

He and his wife, Joy — and their neighbors Cherie and Don Mitchell — are still feeling a bit that way as they consult engineers and geologists about how to reinforce the sheer bluffs.

Time and money are critical.

They don’t have much time; winter storms typically start in October.

They wonder how much geological time they have, as well, before the forces of nature — from the skies above and the seas below — completely erode away the oceanside cliff that supports their homes.

“The hill’s going to find its natural slope, sooner or later,” Paul Carlin said.

A surveyor was at the two homes earlier this week, evaluating the stability of the slope and what can be done to prevent further erosion.

The Carlins’ plan is to have workers remove the remaining vegetation that litters the slope. Then heavy machinery will bore 30 or more 4-inch pins about 25 feet into the ground horizontally beneath their house. The tubes thus created are filled with shot-crete, a mortar that is pneumatically injected at high velocity to compact it and make it strong.

The exposed slope will then be draped with a type of chain-link fencing to hold back larger debris, similar to work done on hillsides adjacent to highways. On top of that will be anchored a mat made of coconut husk, in which native foliage can grow and hopefully, hold the bluff in place.

It’s worked in other places, Paul Carlin said with a shrug. Portland, Newport — up and down the California coast.

The Carlins bought their lot in 2000, razed the house on which it sat and moved its footprint back 5 feet, as suggested by their geologist.

“Had we known how bad it could get, we would have moved it back 15 feet, 20,” she said. She added that no one disclosed to her the danger of living on an ocean bluff.

Expense of a fence

That work doesn’t come cheap.

To stabilize the Carlin’s bluff will cost about $130,000 — not including surveying and prep work.

The estimate for work on the Mitchell’s house is $160,000, but that includes the patios and stairs, all of which slumped or crumbled away. Insurance paid for the flood damage inside their house, but won’t pay for any repairs outside.

“They said the water had to have come at least two houses up,” Joy said. “It has to come from a lake or river — not a culvert.”

The Carlins, whose mortgage was paid off on their home, have the choice: rob their retirement funds or take out a new mortgage. They’ve opted to start paying a mortgage again.

The Mitchells, however, are still paying on their first mortgage, and aren’t sure what they’re going to do yet.

They’re getting increasingly peeved at city elected officials, who after the storm event had a city-wide study conducted this summer to evaluate the integrity of public and private drains, culverts and ditches.

The city claims no responsibility in the damage, saying the public ditches around town are built to 25-year storm standards — the norm for Oregon municipalities. And the storm did, City Manager Gary Milliman said, take everyone by surprise.

City employees joined neighbors in the pouring rain to remove debris — branches, trash, even a Christmas tree tangled in a tarp — from ditches and drains. They immediately fast-tracked the schedule to evaluate the strength and capacity of storm sewer drains and replace infrastructure where needed.

Responsibility

City officials sent letters to those affected by the floods; the Carlins’ read, in part, “In the spirit of compromise and to avoid litigation, we will make an offer of $30,000 in exchange for full release of all claims on the city. …”

One homeowner of the five affected has accepted the offer.

A report to city council from City Manager Gary Milliman reads that the city is willing to offer homeowners “an amount approximating the estimated cost of providing a legal defense.”

To the Carlins and Mitchells, one sounds like a bribe. The other sounds like a partial admission of responsibility — and if that’s the case, the city should be held more responsible for damage caused by torrents of water that overfilled ditches and drains that the city may or may not have been maintained and kept free of debris.

Joy Carlin has a Storm and Surface Water Facilities Plan for Brookings Harbor report from 2006 — one she said city officials can’t find in their records — from HGE Inc., a Coos-Bay architectural, engineering surveying and planning firm. In its conclusion it reads that there is inadequate (runoff) capacity at Railroad Street, a 30-inch culvert at Railroad and Oak streets is in poor condition, there are maintenance issues associated with the ditch between Maple Street and Memory Lane and with the culvert at Memory Lane and Buena Vista Loop.

The last two — and the sheer volume of water — were what ultimately caused the damage along Buena Vista Loop.

This summer’s study, conducted by Dyer Engineering of Coos Bay, indicates the drain at Memory Lane and Buena Vista Loop is “not defective, but could use some modifications.”

“If it’s so damn good, why does it need to be modified?” Don said. “If it’s so damn good, why’d we get flooded?”

The homeowners say they don’t want to fight with the city, but feel it should take a more proactive part in repairing the damage. They relate it to belonging to a homeowner’s association, in that everyone chips in when others need something: Help your neighbor, and when you need his help, it’ll be there, Paul said.

He added that the city was unable to even offer them a low-interest loan through the Urban Renewal Authority.

“We still don’t have any assurances from the city that the drains will be kept clear,” Don said. “We’re going to have all these 90-year-old people out clearing drains.”

“I’m going to walk the ditches,” Paul said. “And I’ll call 911.”

Indeed, the entire street is now on a phone tree, so when the next disaster strikes, they can help each other out.

“This has taught us all a lesson,” Joy said. “People know each other now. They speak to each other now.”

“I look at Colorado, back East, to Mississippi — disaster always goes someplace,” Paul said. “This could very well happen to us again next year.”