RIVERDALE — Annette Cutler’s backyard sits on a bluff looking out over Riverdale, Roy, Ogden and beyond. It’s a spectacular view.
“We’ve had a lot of good memories back here,” she says, looking at the yellow caution tape now intersecting her lawn.
“And a lot of parties,” adds Robert Hiatt, the adult son who lives with her.
Indeed, the backyard has hosted numerous informal weekend gatherings, as well as weddings, birthday celebrations and even a memorial after Cutler’s husband died.
But this yard — and at least two others — is currently in the process of producing what will undoubtedly become a most painful memory: that of a property not-so-slowly sliding onto the valley floor below
Cutler is one of three homeowners currently under a mandatory evacuation after the hillside behind their homes at about 4850 S. 600 West began giving way on Nov. 19.
That day, Cutler says, city officials first told them to evacuate. A large section of the hillside behind them had sloughed off, and crews needed to make sure it was stable. However, within a couple of hours they’d been given the all-clear, and they were back home — for a week, anyway.
Then, on the afternoon of Monday, Nov. 27, the city announced a voluntary evacuation order. By Tuesday, that order had changed to a mandatory evacuation for the three homes, with the city noting that “the slide continues to progress and additional signs have been noted on November 28, 2017 that give rise to the concerns that the slide is getting closer to the homes and have shown signs of damage inside one of the residences, necessitating more drastic evacuation procedures.”
Cutler and Hiatt spent Tuesday night in a hotel.
In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Riverdale City Administrator Rodger Worthen said it is still very much an “active landslide,” and he asked people to stay out of the area. The city has issued a “no trespassing order” around the affected homes and the slide area and has said anyone found there will be arrested.
Worthen said officials haven’t been able to determine what caused the slide, but there are a number of natural springs in the area. He said testing of the city’s water lines has detected no leaks, and there are no man-made wells in the area.
“More than likely,” according to Worthen, the three properties will never be occupied again. He also said more homes will probably be involved before the slide is through.
“It’s active and growing, and that’s our concern,” Worthen said. “From what the state geologist is telling us, it’s going to be active for some time.”
Jared Sholly, Riverdale fire chief, estimates the size of the slide to be 100 feet across and 300 feet long.
Mike Meehan owns 10 acres at the base of the slide. He said it has diverted water to the point of flooding some of his buildings if he doesn’t dig ditches to channel the water away. But, he says, those ditches quickly fill with sediment, and he has to clear them again and again.
“It’s going to be all winter long,” he said.
Meehan said there were some odd signs prior to the landslide, but no one knew what they meant. For example, one of his pastures near the base of the slide always dries out by September and October. But this year, his wife, Becky, noticed the pasture hadn’t dried out.
“She pointed out the pasture was wet this fall, and that’s never happened before,” he said.
READY TO GO
Scott and Chelsea Hulet and their six children live directly north of the three Riverdale houses that have been evacuated. They hadn’t been asked to leave their home as of Wednesday morning, but they were getting ready for a quick exit, just in case.
The couple say they’ve packed all their valuables and nonessentials into boxes and bins, ready to load into vehicles.
“If they say ‘go,’ we’ll be ready to go,” Scott Hulet said.
They’re hoping that order never comes.
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Chelsea Hulet said she spoke Tuesday evening with someone from the city who had a projection map for the slide area.
“I said, ‘What do you think about this house,’ and he said, ‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’” she recalls. “Well, I’ve got six kids that I’m worried about.”
Scott Hulet says there’s a curve to the slope behind these houses along 600 West, and a small ridge behind the backyards between his and his neighbors’ houses. He figures those two things have spared his home from the mandatory evacuation.
“That’s what’s keeping our house out of the slide area so far,” he said.
Joan Reeder, whose home is directly in the path of the shifting hillside, said she feels like she’s had to attend her own funeral and deal with disposition of her own estate. Her husband died four years ago, and she wanted her children go through their belongings, but they just hadn’t had the time. The slide has now made that time.
“Now it has all disappeared so quickly, that I won’t know where things went and can’t explain what they are or where they came from,” Reeder wrote to the Standard-Examiner in a Facebook message on Monday night. “Since the property is now worthless, I can’t even sell it to have the money to move into an apartment or condo. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
‘LIKE A SWAMP’
Scott Hulet says there’s been no shortage of rumors about what’s causing the landslide. He’s heard stories of man-made wells that had been closed off, or damage to one of the city’s water pipes, and even what the city’s been leaning toward — underground springs in the area.
“But I have a hard time with the answers people are giving us,” Scott Hulet said.
Whatever the cause, the Hulets know there’s something going on within the hillside behind them. There’s a small, terraced ledge on their property a few dozen feet below the backyard, and when he hiked down to it on the Monday after the initial evacuation, Scott Hulet could tell something was amiss.
“There was almost two inches of water down there — it was like a swamp,” he said. “That’s always been dry down there, and we hadn’t had any rain.”
And Cutler says she and her son have been hearing running water from the hillside below.
When news of the mandatory evacuation broke Tuesday, the entire neighborhood — and beyond — mobilized, according to the Hulets. They say people from all over the area, and at least one person from every LDS ward in their stake, showed up to help the families affected by the slide.
“There must have been at least 80 people here,” Scott Hulet said.
Cutler’s estimate puts it “easily over 100 people” descending on the neighborhood Tuesday night, all asking, “What do you need? What do you need?”
Cutler says she met more of her neighbors in the past two days than she did in the previous 30 years. She’s never seen a neighborhood come together so quickly. Well, maybe one other time.
“There was wall-to-wall trucks and trailers on the street last night,” she said. “They’d go to one house, get everything out and then move on to the next. It was just like the tornado.”
This is the same Riverdale neighborhood that — just a block away — was hit by a tornado back on Sept. 22, 2016.
Cutler says the tornado just missed her house. They lost a couple of trees and the stabilizing chains on her air conditioner were blown off, but she knows it could have been much worse.
And it just got worse.
Cutler says the city has been extremely kind to her, but she has “no clue” what will happen next. She’s praying that crews have stabilized the hillside, but she isn’t optimistic. Her homeowners insurance won’t cover damage from a landslide, and she doesn’t imagine she’ll be able to continue living in her home, or even sell it.
“I was trying to get to retire,” she said. “Now, I’ll still have my mortgage and I’ll have to pay rent.”
Still, despite her disappearing backyard, Cutler is trying to be optimistic.
“They told us to have an emergency kit. This was it,” she says, gently kicking a plastic bin loaded with bottles of alcohol. “I just told them to leave the coffeemaker and the alcohol and I’ll be OK. I figure I’ll just ride the hillside down.”