Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jacqueline Leavey And Family May Have Had 10 Minutes Advance Warning Of July 11th Landslide In Logan, Utah, Had The Symptoms Been Recognized

Note: All posts on the Logan landslide can be viewed HERE, starting with the most recent post.

This graphic attempts to illustrate a possible cause of the landslide

The Salt Lake Tribune, which I've previously criticized for sloppy journalism, has shaken off its torpor and really risen to the occasion in their coverage of the July 11th Logan landslide. Their reportage has been unusually incisive and comprehensive.

And according to a July 19th Tribune story entitled "Family shares memories of those lost in Logan mudslide", it appears that Jacqueline Leavey and her two kids, Victor Alanis and Abbey Alanis, may have had as much as 10 minutes advance warning of the landslide that devastated their home, shoving it 25 feet forward and six feet to the west, and took their lives. Unfortunately, they did not recognize the symptoms of the impending landslide (nor can they be faulted for failing to recognize them, for the symptoms themselves were ambiguous and landslides are difficult to predict with precision), nor did they sense that their lives could be in danger.

This conclusion is reached from the following information presented in the article. Here are the key excerpts:

Saturday morning [July 11th] Leavey had called her older sister, who was traveling with her boyfriend, a truck driver, to report water flooding into the home. Other neighbors say water had been running along the curb in front of the homes on the north side of the street for several weeks, even spilling into the road.


As the two sisters continued to talk, Rivera's boyfriend called their landlord. Julio Pimentel said Leavey told their sister she could hear rumbling and branches breaking and was going to go outside to check what was happening. They hung up.

By then, Erik Ashcroft, who owns the home, had arrived. ...Ashcroft later told them Leavey was in the yard with her son but returned inside after he went up the hill to check the canal.

Adam Elsmore, a renter living in the house to the east [925 Canyon Road, and the story of this home can be found HERE], returned home about 11:45 a.m. and saw Ashcroft at the back of his property. Elsmore had been inside his home about 10 minutes when he heard cracking noises. He looked out a back sliding door and saw part of the hill give way. Elsmore immediately ran out of the home. By then, the roof of the home next door had been tipped and flattened but the house had not yet been completely buried. Elsmore said he no longer saw Ashcroft and feared he had been buried. But Ashcroft apparently had left to try and contact canal officials. He ran toward Leavey's home, where a power line was down and a gas pipe had broken.

At the same time other neighbors, who had also heard the cracking sounds and rushed outside, attempted to approach the home. Scott Flinn, who lives across the street, saw Leavey's home as the mudslide lifted it and tipped the roof forward. Flinn, a roommate and a friend ran to the back of the home, which had not yet been buried. They called out to anyone inside. Flinn said there was no response and, smelling gas, they quickly moved away and began helping residents of a home to the west carry out belongings.

The hillside continued to slide, covering Leavey's home. "It made a lot of noise when it came," Elsmore said Saturday as he removed debris from around his home. "Once it started moving it was really fast. . . . There wasn't a lot of warning."

From this account, we can establish the following sequence of events:

(1). Jacqueline Leavey began to hear rumbling and branches breaking even while she was on the phone with her sister. She immediately hung up and, in response to Rivera's phone call, Leavey's landlord Erik Ashcroft had already arrived. The reported time was 11:45 A.M.

(2). Ashcroft went to the back of the property and up the hill to check the canal. This probably led Leavey to believe she still had sufficient time to react and conclude that there was no threat to her life.

(3). At approximately 11:55 A.M., the hillside came down. Before that, Ashcroft had apparently left to contact canal officials, thus personally escaping the landslide. The initial wave lifted the house off the foundation, tipped and flattened the roof, but only partially inundated the home with mud at this point. Neighbors immediately ran over to see if they could assist, which implies there was a short interval between a first wave and a second wave.

(4). The landslide resumed, completely engulfing and inundating the home. Previous reports indicate up to 25 feet of mud and debris.

Thus we've established that there was at least 10 minutes between the time Jacqueline Leavey first heard rumbling and cracking and the time the hillside came down. The fact that her landlord, Ashcroft, went into the backyard to investigate, combined with the fact that no previous landslide in the area had caused loss of life, apparently led her to believe that not only was her family's lives NOT IN IMMEDIATE DANGER, but that she had time to organize a more systemic evacuation. This was a logical decision on her part, but unfortunately it was the wrong landslide in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it cost her family their lives.

Note that the intent is NOT to second-guess Leavey or criticize her, but simply to provide some insight as to how she perceived and coped with the situation.

The finger of accountability is now pointing in the direction of Logan officials, and in particular, the operator of the Logan Northern Canal. Evidence shows there was some concern, but it was never acted upon. According to a July 14th Tribune story, Jess Harris, a former official with the canal company, was so worried about landslides and flooding that he explored laying a wide steel pipe in the canal's bed. The pipe would have run about 1/2 mile through the most troublesome stretch of the canal, including the site of the July 11th landslide. Containing water in a pipe would eliminate walls of water like that which contributed to the destruction of Leavey's home. But Logan Northern decided against the pipe, which Harris said would have cost about $300,000 in 1998. He said the company had tried to maintain the canal by patching, replacing or bracing the century-old concrete that still lines much of the canal. But it is still unclear whether a leaky canal alone could have triggered the landslide, or if it was in concert with natural springs in the area.

City officials initially said natural springs likely caused the disaster by saturating the ground below the canal, initiating a slide that took out a 100-foot section of the concrete structure. But later they said that while the ground under the canal was indeed overly saturated, it was too early to be certain why.

A 2008 study by USU graduate student Katerine Napán Molina offers a possible explanation. It showed that while the Logan Northern Canal did not appear to leak any worse than several other irrigation channels in the area, it was unique in that the worst seepage occurred in the steepest areas, including the area where Saturday's deadly slide began. Engineering professor Gary Merkley, who advised Molina's research, said Monday that seepage isn't unusual in canals, especially in ones as old as the Logan Northern. But most canals aren't built on steep slopes, and seepage there can have devastating consequences.

Even as local and state officials are still sorting out causes and jurisdiction, Utah's Congressional delegation is reacting. Congressman Rob Bishop, whose district includes the neighborhood, met with Logan officials early Saturday July 18th, and was speechless when he first viewed the damage Saturday. "I don't even know what to say," he told the Deseret News. "When you see something like this, it's just … boy. All I can say is I'm sorry for your loss, but that doesn't mean a whole lot, does it?". Bishop also said that he's been talking to HUD, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers just to see what resources are available, but so far, has found no answers."

On Friday July 17th, Sen. Bob Bennett announced he had secured $400,000 to study why the canal in Logan broke and to begin repairs. The funding allows the Agriculture Department to examine the canal, identify risks and begin repairs. The money comes out of earlier appropriations Bennett had secured for the Utah Conservation Initiative.

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