Victims of Wyoming Landslide Recalls Early Signs

By BEN GRAHAM, Jackson Hole News & Guide | April 28, 2014

The cracks measured 1/16 of an inch wide – about the thickness of a penny – when Jeremy Budge first noticed them in the wooden floor boards between his kitchen and dining room.

He thought nothing of it at the time. Chalking it up to warped wood or perhaps some water damage, Budge used his thumb to smear wood putty the length of the thin clefts. That was Christmas 2011.

The next clue was a door that didn’t quite shut correctly.

It took several months for the evidence to add up. Even then, the Budges could not have imagined that the small signs were pointing to the scene of devastation of last week when their house, which Budge’s father built, was ripped in two by a slow-moving landslide that has been creeping down East Gros Ventre Butte.

The break occurred along the same small cracks Budge tried to seal with putty more than two years ago.

Sometime between the evening of April 17 and the next morning, a rapid drop in the scarp face of the slide cleaved the kitchen and living room from the rest of the house.

Budge, who owns a landscaping company, was born and raised in the neighborhood on the butte, in a house just above the one that was destroyed.

“The truth of the matter is we’ve lost everything. That was what we had,” Budge said. “I think we’re still in shock for the most part.”

A dozen public agencies, engineering consultants and contractors have been working for the past two weeks to map the ground movement and to come up with ways to slow it.

Most recently crews began piling dirt and concrete blocks on the “toe” of the slide around the base of Budge Drive, beneath the cliff and the wrecked house above.

The compacted dirt created a temporary road that restored access to the top of Budge Drive, which allowing crews with heavy drilling equipment to bore holes above the slope to analyze water and soil content.

Town public works employees were trying to provide a backup diversion for the water main beneath West Broadway, where it passes in front of Walgreens at the foot of the slide zone.

The slide had yet to reach Broadway – one of the town’s chief concerns, because the subterranean water pipe serves a third of Jackson. If ruptured, it would rapidly flood the street and could pose a danger to motorists.

“We’re measuring the risk every day versus the benefit” of keeping the road open, incident co-commander Willy Watsabaugh said. “If I thought the first person would be at risk on Broadway, I would close the road.”

The pharmacy parking lot was ravaged by the slide. Buckled pavement jutted as much as 10 feet into the air in some places. The town’s pump station and the adjacent Walgreens sign were leaning at increasingly cockeyed angles.

The slide slowed after town officials evacuated the Budges’ neighborhood and the cliff above Walgreens became a community-wide spectacle. Jeremy and Sara Budge, along with their daughters Amber, 15, and Heather, 12, were among the crowds watching the hillside.

“It’s really a weird emotion, because it’s interesting and then you’re really sad,” Sara Budge said.

“You realize this is your house being torn apart, and then you start tearing up,” her husband said.

The Budges first grew uneasy in the spring of 2012, once the snow melted to reveal a crack in the driveway. Jeremy’s father took measurements of the house that showed some movement had occurred, but the family still didn’t know the severity of the situation. It could have been something related to the foundation or another fixable issue, Budge thought at the time.

“We were concerned, but we didn’t think it was a major problem,” he said. “We were all kind of scratching our heads for the first year.”

It wasn’t until the following spring, around Mother’s Day of 2013, that the Budges became seriously worried.

“There was substantial movement in the structure by then,” Budge said.

There wasn’t any new movement, it was just that existing problems had become much worse. Cracks were larger, doors fit worse in their frames, and the house had dropped a few inches.

That is when the family contacted its insurance company and others about the situation. Engineers began monitoring the property.

On the advice of a lawyer, the Budges wouldn’t discuss any more details about who was involved.

“We’re more concerned about making a solid life for our kids and putting the pieces back together,” Jeremy Budge said.

The family moved out of the now-annihilated house in November because of mounting concerns about the stability of the slope. They stayed in a motel for two weeks and then had to ask renters to move from the house they own farther up on the butte so they could move in.

That move came after weeks and months of anxiety. A rug had been laid over cracks in the house to ease the nerves of one of their daughters. Jeremy had to completely re-hang the front door.

During the summer, once work on the Walgreens began, the construction rattled the house and became unnerving. Another time the family thought they felt the tremor of an earthquake.

“I almost jumped out of the window,” Sara Budge said.

There were bad dreams of falling down the slope.

“We’re all having nightmares, we can’t live here anymore, this is scary,” Jeremy Budge said, describing the family’s mind-set before moving out. “The cracks, they were growing, and we live on top of a cliff.

“We were scared for our lives, basically,” he said.

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