Engineers Watch Evacuated San Antonio Homes for More Moving Soil

January 28, 2010

Residents of 25 homes evacuated after a landslide split a retaining wall and threatened to topple hilltop homes will not be allowed to return for at least 10 days as engineers watch for further soil movement, the developer said Jan. 26.

The residents, who live within one block of the slide, were evacuated after a man called 911 and told officials his backyard was sliding downhill. Enormous chasms, some 15-feet deep, quickly emerged, splitting a towering retaining wall below and exposing the foundations of three hilltop homes.

The developer, Centex Homes, is working to stabilize the homes and the hillside. The land was still moving slightly Jan. 26, but engineers believed it was nearly stable, said Laurin Darnell, a Centex vice president.

About 90 homes were initially evacuated, but residents farther from the slide were allowed to return Jan. 25. No one was injured.

Valerie Dolenga, a spokeswoman for Pulte Homes Inc., Centex’s parent company, said about half of the residents who remain evacuated may be able to return in the next 10 to 15 days after soil engineers make sure their property is stable.

The other residents, whose homes sit on and below the crumbling hilltop, will be displaced longer as officials determine whether the houses can be made safe, Darnell said. The company is working with those families to find longer-term accommodations, he said.

Pulte’s engineers continue to investigate the cause of the landslide, but San Antonio Planning and Development Director Roderick Sanchez said improper construction of the 30-foot tall, 1,000-foot long retaining wall and improper compacting of the fill dirt on the home sites caused the slide.

Darnell conceded Centex had no city permit to build the retaining wall, but he said he thought the company followed city regulations and standard industry practices in its construction. He disputed the city’s allegation that the wall was improperly built.

An earlier retaining wall was torn down and the current one built after engineers found drainage problems in 2007, he said.

The company’s engineers “feel this is very much an isolated incident. They feel it’s being driven by some unique soil characteristics at the site,” he said. He declined to describe those characteristics or comment on them further.

The engineering investigation should yield more answers on the slide’s cause in the next couple of days, Darnell said.

“I know people want information now. We do more than anybody, but it’s important that we do this in a methodical way,” he said.

The development, which was started near the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2004, has nearly 750 homes with others still under construction. The upper middle-class neighborhood, with houses that sell for $250,000, is among dozens that sprung up on the hilly northwestern outskirts of San Antonio as the city grew to be the nation’s seventh largest.

City officials released a statement saying they would have an inspector monitor construction in the development and hire an independent structural engineer to evaluate whether the homes are safe. The city also plans to check permits for all other retaining walls Pulte built in the city.

Texas has a Residential Construction Commission with the power to perform inspections, determine fault and suggest remedies in incidents like this, but the state Legislature did not reauthorize the commission during the last session, so it can’t take on this case.

Patrick Fortner, the commission’s acting executive director, said complaints are being referred to local authorities or the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Residents may want to have their homes independently inspected if they’re worried about stability, he said.

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