Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Where are the Western North Carolina Landslide Hazard Maps?

In September 2004 landslides ravaged 15 counties in Western North Carolina, lives were lost and homes and roads slid down steep mountain slopes. The state received 2 federal disaster declarations and $72 million in emergency aid. For receipt of federal grants, the state was required to initiate a comprehensive "Is it Safe to Build Here" regional landslide mapping study. To date only 2 series of landslide maps have been completed. The hazard maps for Macon County were finished in October 2006 and the studies for Watauga in January 2008.

According to legislative findings and geologic investigations, landslides in Western North Carolina are serious and determinable threats to lives and property. The Macon and Watauga County government websites provide no information about the reasons for the landslide mapping program or the existence of the completed hazard maps.

The following article demonstrates the difficulty in identifying properties that are at risk of landslide damage.

"Maps Show Landslide Risk For Properties" / Oregon Public Broadcasting

By Kristian Foden-Vencil

Portland, OR January 9, 2008

The state of Oregon released a report Wednesday finding that landslides are a major hazard-causing about $10 million worth of damage a year.

After four people died in one particularly bad slide in the 1990's, the state's 'Department of Geology and Mineral Industries' was charged with creating a map to highlight all the problem areas.

But as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, these maps can be difficult to access, depending on where you live, so learning or not your home is prone to landslides can be a pain.

If you're about to buy a home and it sits at the base of a steep slope, you might want to find out whether the area is prone to landslides.

If the house is in Portland, you're in luck. The city has set up an impressive website '' where you can type in your address and find out whether you should be worried about landslides.

But if you don't live in Portland--most likely you're in for a trip down to the planning office and probably a map-printing fee.

Andy Stahl owns a 44-acre farm near Eugene, on which he's seen evidence of landslides.

Andy Stahl: "The maps are only available if you have geographic information software and you have to buy the maps. And this is very much on purpose, because the real estate industry, local developers, local counties, and cities who want to promote growth, don't want people to know where the dangerous areas are."

It sounds like a conspiracy theory.

But James Roddey of 'The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries' says there are a couple of reasons why his agency hasn't put the landslide map on the web.

James Roddey: "One is money. Putting together something like that is an expensive proposition. But something that we're working on. For example, if you live in Oregon City and you live in a landslide area, you can actually go to our website and put in your address and put in a layer over it that gives landslides for the Oregon City area and look and see if your home is in a landslide prone area. So we're moving toward that. But it's a lengthy process."

The question is, does he think there's a conspiracy limiting the data?

James Roddey: "It's not necessarily that there's a conspiracy to withhold this information. It's just that the technology wasn't there, the law wasn't written as well as it could have been. The things that the law was going to trigger were going to be burdens for communities to have to live with. So fast forward to now, where we're working with Oregon City to develop these maps, and even looking at susceptibility maps, so that we're going to to be able to go to Oregon City and says that you have areas of your community that are much more susceptible to landslides to others. The real estate people aren't going to like, but it's reality."

It's true that it's easy to find landslide information in towns like Portland and Oregon City. But you don't have to look far before it becomes more difficult.

Take Salem for example. It has a website where you can easily pull up zoning maps. But if your house stands close to a hill, waterfall, or other landslide hazard, you'll have to get in contact with a planner.

Glen Gross: "You can come to the Salem City hall. To the community development department."

Glen Gross is Salem's planning administrator.

Glenn Gross: "Go to the permit application center. We have a planning information desk, that's staffed all the time, 8 to 5, five days a week including the lunch hour. And you can ask the planner on duty to tell you whether or not the home that you're interested in is in a landslide hazard area. And what the planner will do is take the address that you give them, put it in a computer, and our geographic information system has a layer of information for landslide hazard areas and it will pop up."

And why isn't it on the web?

Glenn Gross: "Well we're looking at putting more information on our website. And eventually I'm sure it will be but at the moment we have not put that particular piece on the website."

Planning websites, like Portland's, have become increasingly sophisticated over the last decade.

For example at '' it's now possible to find out if you live in a flood plain, a high risk earthquake zone, or for that matter, how much your neighbor paid for his house.

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