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Wednesday
Mar272013

Landslide on Washington Island Forces Evacuation of 34 Homes

KOMO/ABC News(COUPEVILLE, Wash.) -- A chunk of Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington slid into water early Wednesday morning, forcing the evacuation of 34 homes.

At one home at the new cliff edge, a steady stream of soil can be seen leaking out from beneath the building. Authorities are continuing to monitor a house where there's still slide activity, as dirt continues to slough off the cliff, said Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue Chief Ed Hartin.

Fire and Rescue went to a home around 4 a.m. Wednesday morning in Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Wash., to find it had been pushed off its foundation. Hartin told ABC News that when he arrived, the home was already a considerable distance down the cliff by the water.

The landslide stretched across 400 to 500 yards and the earth dropped 600 to 700 yards down to the water, reported ABC Seattle television affiliate KOMO, with trees and tons of dirt smashing into homes down below and wiping out a road. Somehow no one was injured.

Hartin said rescuers used ATVs to reach the home that had slid down the cliff. He said the residents had escaped before the cliff dropped.

Of the 34 homes being evacuated, 17 are below the cliff and were isolated, cut off from the rest of the island by tons of rock, dirt and trees and wiped out the road as well as electrical and water connections, said Hardin.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said these residents of these homes are being evacuated by rescue boats to a temporary shelter.

Another 17 homes on the top of the cliff are also being evacuated, as many residents lost portions of their waterfront property to the landslide, said Hartin.

"Where the soil dropped, it forms a sheer cliff," said Brown. "At the top of that cliff, you've got people's backyard that went from 60 feet to now 10 feet."

Whidbey Island is one of two islands in Island County, Wash. The area is home to a mix of both year-long residents and vacation home owners.

"Landslides are not a total uncommon event on the island," Hartin said.

Susan Berta, who lived on Whidbey Island for nearly 14 years, told ABC News that the geology of the island is "a constant slow-moving active landslide."

"When there's a lot of moisture and freezing and thawing -- which we've been having -- what happens is the water goes down the clay layers [of the bluffs], and they become more liquid and just start sliding."

The street that the landslide impacted "has sloughed off and slid pretty much off and on for the last twenty years, said Berta, who worked as a coordinator for an environmental program on the island that taught volunteers about the geology of the island, bluffs, and bluff erosion.

"It's not a surprise that it slid," she said. "To me, what's shocking is that so much went so fast."

Berta said her friend's home on the cliff was impacted by the landslide, and she thinks he lost a considerable portion of his backyard to the event. She and other friends were trying to get together to help him clear out of the home, she said.

"I knew that someday, something like this would happen," she said. "I'm just shocked that so much of it went so quickly."

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ABC News Radio