Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Hills of Rivermist and Ghost Town in the Sky Landslide Disasters

The Hills of Rivermist and Ghost Town in the Sky landslide photographs display the damage caused by improperly-designed retaining walls.

Photo of The Hills of Rivermist landslide damage
Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

Photos of the Ghost Town in the Sky landslide damage—Asheville Citizen-Times
video provided by WSPA News

Landslide-prevention walls are expensive engineering projects and as a consequence companies often choose to bypass building codes. These business decisions violate the rules and endanger lives.

The following case histories outline the corporate actions that led to The Hills of Rivermist and Ghost Town in the Sky retaining wall failures.

The Hills of Rivermist Landslide
State of Emergency—January 24, 2010

Scores of families were forced to evacuate their homes after sections of The Hills of Rivermist Subdivision retaining wall broke apart. Twenty-seven homes in the hazard zone remain vacant due to safety concerns.

Photo of Hills of Rivermist Subdivision
prior to retaining wall collapse.
Circle marks location of wall

breaches— Dave's Landslide Blog.

For chronological reports on
The Hills of Rivermist Subdivision

landslide please visit Homeowners of Texas Web site.

Centex, the developer of The Hills of Rivermist, has offered to repurchase these still-at-risk properties and has agreed to construct a new wall at an estimated cost of $4-5 million.

In disregard of building codes the Centex /Hills of Rivermist Subdivision landslide-prevention wall was constructed without city inspection. San Antonio officials have established that the structure did not meet engineering specifications for Bexar County’s expansive soil conditions.

Since the landslide, Rivermist property owners have been informed by an advocacy group, Homeowners of Texas, that 94.6% of soil types supporting homes and roads in their subdivision will shrink and swell. Data compiled in the 60s and 70s by the FHA and Bexar County soil scientists found that these unstable soil compositions will cause severe structural damage. Rivermist property owners have also learned that an earlier Centex landslide-barrier wall failed.
As of June 18, 2010, plans for the new wall remain under review by Centex and the Rivermist Homeowners’ Association. Should Centex default on its obligation, responsibility will shift to the property owners.

Ghost Town in the Sky Landslide
State of Emergency—February 5, 2010

Ghost Town in the Sky's failed retaining walls unleashed a debris flow that sideswiped homes and severely damaged state-owned Rich Cove Road. The walls at issue were constructed in 2007 and 2008 without required state supervision and inspection. In March 2009, owners of the amusement park, Ghost Town Partners, LLC, were privately advised that their $600,000 constructed walls were deficient and likely to fail. Pat Burgin, the contract engineer, found:
It is the opinion of the engineer, based on site observations, experience with local soil properties and MSE structure design, the primary cause of the MSE wall movements are due to improper construction of the wall. The soil reinforcement component of the design may be inadequate and/or improperly installed. In addition, the design of the wall may be incorrect for the specific site. The MSE wall is not functioning as intended at this time and structural failure of the wall is possible if not replaced.
Instead of notifying authorities of the potential landslide hazard and assuming responsibility for the flawed retaining walls, Steve Shiver President of Ghost Town Partners and his co-investors, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Bankruptcy rules require petitioners to maintain insurance protection during reorganiztion. First Mercury Insurance, underwriter for Ghost's Town's liability policy, cancelled coverage on January 28, 2010 for the company's failure to pay premiums. The policy was reinstated shortly after the Ghost Town landslide. First Mercury has declined claims for losses incurred during the lapse period. For a list of Ghost Town creditors please see Bankruptcy Case No: 09-10271.

On May 19, 2010 federally-funded contract engineers advised Maggie Valley officials and residents that the Ghost Town in the Sky site contains up to 16,000 tons of remaining unstable material. The Ghost Town in the Sky hazard is classified as an “impending or active slope failure.”

When funds are received, engineers plan on returning the mountain slope to its natural state by removing developer’s loose fill. Due to unstable conditions heavy equipment will not be allowed on the worksite. Some of the soil removal will be undertaken with shovels and wheelbarrows.

Most of the $1.4 million Ghost Town in the Sky landslide-mitigation project is being underwritten by a federal grant. Additional monies will come from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The town of Maggie Valley and Ghost Town owners have offered contributions of $25,000 each.

Where are the Criminal Indictments?

Centex, now part of Pulte Group, Inc., is currently the largest U. S. homebuilder and is doing business in North Carolina. It is not well-known but Centex has a history of building subdivisions on hazardous-land tracts.

Ghost Town Partners, LLC is a North Carolina entity that was formed to own and operate an amusement park.

Evidence supplied by the media and other parties suggest that Centex and Ghost Town principals engaged in grossly negligent behavior that resulted in reckless endangerment. Even though these landslide-prevention walls are located in different states and were erected by separate business entities the corporate mindset was identical: build without permit and mandatory inspection.

Reckless endangerment is the failure to use reasonable care to avoid consequences that threaten or harm the safety of the public and that are the foreseeable outcome of acting in a particular manner.

The decision to prosecute Centex and Ghost Town in the Sky officials for grossly negligent behavior rests with state and federal law enforcement. Considering the facts, it is thought-provoking that no government agency has opened criminal investigations into the cause of these emergencies.


So the question is why two states’ attorney generals have not opened investigations as to the cause of The Hills of Rivermist and Ghost Town in the Sky landslide disasters?

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